- Associated Press - Friday, June 19, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - After a sprawling and messy budget fight that spawned lawsuits and finger-pointing, the fractured Republican-controlled Florida Legislature approved a nearly $79 billion budget and ended its special session Friday.

Legislators were racing against the clock to pass the budget after they failed to pass one during their regular two-month session that ended in late April.

The final vote was 37-0 in the Senate and 96-17 in the House. It followed two days of debate in which some legislators expressed frustration at the drawn-out budget battle caused by a stalemate over health care. The Senate wanted to expand health insurance coverage for low-income Floridians; the House did not.

“There’s a lot of things we didn’t do in this budget; that’s why they make next year,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican.

The budget heads next to Gov. Rick Scott, who has only 10 days to review it and decide whether to use his line-item veto power to ax spending included in the plan. State government will be partially shut down if a new budget is not signed by July 1.

Legislators were unable to reach a deal on a budget during the regular session. House Republicans adjourned three days early because Senate leaders were insisting on a proposal to expand insurance coverage by tapping into federal money tied to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul. Senate Democrats filed a lawsuit against the House, and the state Supreme Court ruled that the House should not have left early.

The standoff led to a June special session where the House eventually voted on - and killed - the Senate health care proposal. The defeat led House and Senate budget negotiators to finally start working together. They worked largely behind closed doors to reach an agreement on the final $78.7 billion budget approved by legislators.

“We showed that you can have two chambers led by the same party have huge disagreements but get along, compromise and come to a resolution that benefits Floridians,” said Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican and the House budget chief.

The final budget includes more than $400 million in tax cuts, including a 10-day back-to-school sales tax holiday and a small cut in taxes charged on cellphone and cable television bills. Scott had been seeking nearly $700 million in tax cuts. Florida will also spend 3 percent more on each public school student, although the final amount falls short of Scott’s campaign promise to raise school funding to historic levels.

Other notable highlights include a new bonus program for more than 4,000 teachers and a proposal to triple the money for a program backed by Senate President Andy Gardiner that helps children with disabilities. But lawmakers set aside only $55 million for land acquisition and $17 million for the state’s Florida Forever program. Critics said that legislators ignored the wishes of voters who approved the Amendment 1 land conservation measure last fall.

Scott, who sided with the House and opposed the Senate’s health care proposal, did not show up at the close of the session as he has done in years past. Many key parts of Scott’s agenda were scaled back, or ignored, as legislators put together the new budget.

The Republican governor could show his displeasure by targeting those legislators who did not back his agenda. But Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano said he hoped the governor would understand that any budget vetoes would “impact real people.”

“I’m hoping he would not be that petty with projects in the budget,” said Galvano, a Bradenton Republican.

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