BRADENTON, Fla. — The Florida Legislature is poised to approve a $68 billion budget for fiscal 2012 on Friday and end its 60-day regular annual session on time.
Though there was much discussion earlier in the year about a shortfall that could reach $4 billion, lawmakers have agreed on a spending plan that is slightly less than the current $70 billion budget while still giving more than $300 million in tax relief, though it is far less than what was sought by freshman Republican Gov. Rick Scott.
The final budget bill ensures there will be about $2 billion in reserves, in part to protect the state’s gilt-edged bond rating.
Public employees who participate in the Florida Retirement System will be required to contribute 3% of their pay to the plan, while receiving no salary increase for the fifth year in a row. Previously state employees made no contribution to the retirement plan. Close to 4,500 jobs are expected to be eliminated, but it’s not clear yet how many are frozen or unfilled positions.
Lawmakers are planning a 12% cut in Medicaid reimbursements and want to trim public education by $1.3 billion.
In support of Scott’s program to concentrate on port deepening, the budget allocates $100 million a year over the next five years in hopes of attracting larger ships that will travel through the Panama Canal when its expansion project is complete.
It is not clear if the extra port funding is through bonding because the documents for bond authorizations were not available Thursday.
Scott’s budget recommendation proposed a total of $331.3 million of debt, far less than the $885.6 million of bonds authorized in the current budget.
In other proposals supporting fiscal 2012 spending, lawmakers plan to privatize prisons in 18 counties in the southern part of the state. Such a program was attempted years ago but was found to save little over state control of the system,
The budget once again includes a three-day back-to-school property tax holiday, which is expected to cost the state $25.6 million in revenue. It also cuts the corporate income tax by increasing the liability exemption to $25,000 from the current $5,000.
In the days leading up to the end of the session, the Republican-led Legislature passed a flurry of bills and sent them to Scott for approval.
One measure that Democrats worried could affect the state’s bond rating is the so-called Smart Cap, which is similar to Colorado’s controversial Taxpayer Bill Of Rights because it includes spending limits tied to inflation and population growth.
Florida’s version differs from Colorado’s TABOR because the cap includes the revenues used to pay debt service on bonds issued after July 1, 2012.
The cap does not include receipts for the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund and Citizens Property Insurance Corp. or for public universities and colleges, and balances carried forward from prior fiscal years. The cap can be adjusted by a super-majority vote of both chambers.
If Scott signs the Smart Cap, it will be considered by voters in a statewide referendum who could make it part of the state’s constitution.
“The proposed constitutional amendment will allow Florida voters to cap the growth of state government spending at set levels, save for difficult economic times, and then return excess tax revenues back to the citizens who pay it,” said Sen. President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. “I call it a smart cap because it is good for taxpayers and good for the economy. It wisely limits state spending so it never grows faster than Floridians’ personal income.”
A bill that proposes a significant change in public education makes it easier for new charter schools to become established and creates new standards for schools to qualify for 15-year charters instead of the current five-year standard.
Opponents of the charter school bill fear that it could take a significant amount of additional funding away from public schools that already are suffering from several years of state budget cuts and loss of local revenues due to lower property values.