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Lawmakers pass $88.7 billion budget to end session

Sunday, March 11, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: DCMS
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By Lloyd Dunkelberger
The News Service of Florida

TALLAHASSEE --- Florida lawmakers ended their 2018 session Sunday by passing an $88.7 billion budget, while Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation that provides record funding for Bright Futures college scholarships and continues expanding voucher-like programs for children to attend private schools.

In a 95-12 vote, the House approved the 2018-2019 budget (HB 5001), which takes effect on July 1. The Senate then approved the budget in a 31-5 vote, with opposition in both chambers coming from Democrats.

The votes concluded an annual session that ran two days into overtime after lawmakers failed to agree on a budget in time to observe a constitutionally required 72-hour “cooling-off” period before an expected Friday vote on the budget.

Republican leaders touted increases money for the education system. Funding in the kindergarten-through-high-school system increased by $101.50 per student, while performance funding for state universities was increased by $20 million.

“This is an outstanding year for education,” Scott said in a bill-signing ceremony with House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Scott signed a higher-education bill (SB 4) that will permanently expand Bright Futures merit-based scholarships for university and state college students.

The bill, a top priority of Negron, will cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for some 48,155 students who qualify as Bright Futures “academic scholars” next school year and provide $300 for the fall and spring semesters for textbooks.

The legislation expands state aid to cover 75 percent of tuition and fees, representing $159 out of the average $211 per credit-hour cost, for 46,521 students who qualify as Bright Futures “medallion scholars.”

The expansion will result in a $520 million Bright Futures program in the new academic year, eclipsing the previous high of $429 million set in 2008-2009.

The budget continues expansion of the state’s main need-based aid program, Florida Student Assistance Grants, to support an estimated 236,724 students, who will receive average awards of $1,155.

Negron said the new law “restores the promise” of Bright Futures scholarships and was major part of his two-year quest as Senate president to raise the national profile of Florida’s university system.

“Through this legislation, the Legislature and Gov. Scott are telling Florida students and families that they can count on the Bright Futures scholarship as they plan their investment in an education at one of our excellent colleges or universities,” Negron said.

Scott also signed a far-ranging education bill (HB 7055), supported by Corcoran, that will expand the use of voucher-like scholarships to send more public-school students to private schools.

While Republican leaders touted that bill, it drew opposition from Democrats. Caroline Rowland, a spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party, issued a statement Sunday blasting Scott for signing HB 7055.

“Just like he’s done for years, Rick Scott is draining funding from our public schools in order to give his political donors and cronies another taxpayer funded handout --- it’s just the latest demonstration that Scott puts his own self-serving politics over Florida’s schools, teachers and students,” Rowland said.

One program in the bill will let students who face bullying or harassment in public schools transfer to private schools. The “hope scholarships” will be funded by motorists who voluntarily agree to contribute the sales taxes they would normally pay on vehicle transactions to the scholarships. It is expected to generate $41.5 million for the scholarships in the next year.

The legislation also allows businesses that pay a state tax on commercial leases to voluntarily shift those funds to Gardiner scholarships, which pay for services and private-school scholarships for disabled students. The new budget boosts the Gardiner scholarships by $25 million to $128 million.

The law builds on Corcoran’s two-year effort as House speaker to expand school choice programs, with a particular focus on helping students in low-performing schools.

The legislation is coupled with a budget that provides another $140 million to the “schools of hope” program, which is aimed at providing more services to “persistently” low-performing schools and allowing more charter schools to serve students in those areas.

Corcoran said the goal is to give “all children of all districts, all neighborhoods, a real chance at a world-class education.”

The new law also contains a controversial provision that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below 50 percent of the employees they represent in the contract-negotiating process. If decertified, the unions would be forced to reorganize and seek a new vote to represent the teachers.

“Nobody should be forced to be led when a majority of the people you are leading don’t want to be there,” Corcoran said.

The rare Sunday conclusion to the annual legislative session also marked Scott’s last regular session as governor.

He won support for a constitutional amendment that, if approved by voters in November, will require two-thirds votes by the Legislature to raise taxes or fees in the future.

Lawmakers also backed a $53 million initiative to deal with the state’s opioid crisis, which was another Scott priority.

Scott said he is pleased by pay raises in the state budget for law enforcement officers, including the Florida Highway Patrol, and workers at the Department of Juvenile Justice.

And he cited the Legislature’s support for requiring nursing homes and assisted living facilities to have generators to provide power to facilities in the aftermath of major storms.

But Scott, as well as Negron and Corcoran, said the 2018 session may be best remembered for the response following the Feb. 14 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.

The shooting, which killed 17 people, led to a $400 million school-safety initiative and legislation imposing new restrictions on gun purchases.

“Probably the most important thing we did this year is we listened to the families of Parkland. In very short period of time, we came together and passed historic legislation to make our schools safer,” Scott said. “This is my last regular legislative session and I couldn’t be more proud of this session than all eight sessions I’ve been a part of.”