- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 16, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida’s contentious and messy budget stalemate that divided the state’s Republicans and threatened to force the shutdown of state government is finally over.

With just days left, the Florida Legislature has reached a deal on a nearly $79 billion budget. The final budget was delivered to legislators late Tuesday afternoon.

The budget has winners and losers in the mix as the GOP legislative leaders battled for months over health care spending, tax cuts and how much money should be set aside to comply with a voter-backed land conservation amendment. Powerful legislative leaders were able in the waning moments to add tens of millions for hometown projects, even though they did not give state employees an across-the-board pay raise or cut taxes as much as Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

But legislative leaders still met their main goal of finishing work on the budget before the end of June when they would have been confronted with the threat of a partial government shut down.

They also contended they crafted a budget that will help the state’s hospitals absorb the expected loss of federal aid. Senate Republicans had insisted of setting aside more than $400 million in state tax dollars to help the hospitals despite the initial resistance of both House Republicans and Scott.

“There’s a vast chasm of difference between what might have been and where we are today,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and Senate budget chief.

Legislators were unable to reach a deal on a budget during the regular session. House Republicans even adjourned early because Senate leaders were insisting on a proposal to expand health care coverage to Floridians by tapping into federal money tied to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

The standoff led to a June special session where the Florida House eventually voted on - and killed - the Senate health care coverage proposal. The defeat of the plan led to House and Senate budget negotiators to finally start working together. Budget negotiators then worked largely behind closed doors to reach an agreement.

The final budget deal reached by legislative leaders includes more than $400 million in tax cuts, including a 10-day back to school sales tax holiday. 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 expand a program backed by Senate President Andy Gardiner that helps children with disabilities. Legislators also agreed to keep health insurance premiums for state employees the same, including the low rate now charged to Scott, legislative staff and nearly 30,000 other high-ranking employees. Legislators themselves will continue paying a higher amount that is charged to rank-and-file employees.

Voters approved a measure last fall calling for money to be dedicated to conservation programs. The new budget sets aside more than $50 million for buying land, including just $17 million for the state’s Florida Forever program. Conservation groups charge that the funding levels set by legislators do not follow the will of voters.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford contended that the budget fight has not resulted in anything that will make a large difference for Floridians.

“They have really failed to deliver anything that will improve very much the average Floridian or taxpayer,” said Pafford, a Lake Worth legislator.

Legislators will vote on the final budget late Friday. That’s because Florida law requires a 72-hour “cooling off” period before a final vote.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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