- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida legislators racing against the clock on Sunday reached important budget deals on everything from school construction to pay raises to state workers.

Lawmakers must have a new state budget finished by Tuesday in order to wrap up their session by this coming Friday. That led to a marathon session of budget talks over the weekend.

One of the major deals that budget chiefs from the House and Senate announced was a decision to spend more than $700 million on construction projects for Florida’s public schools, universities, colleges and charter schools.

This enabled lawmakers to steer $20 million to a proposed downtown campus for the University of Central Florida that was a top priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner as a well as $22.5 million for a downtown medical school being pushed by the University of South Florida. The Florida Board of Governors just last week approved UCF’s plans for a 68-acre parcel of land that used to be the location of the arena where the Orlando Magic played.

Charter schools, which are public schools run by private groups, will receive $75 million for construction projects.

The decision to give charter schools the money comes amid a still unresolved tug-of-war between the House and Senate over whether additional restrictions should be placed on money for charter schools. A recent analysis by The Associated Press found that as much as $70 million has gone to Florida charter schools that eventually closed. Taxpayers usually can’t recover the capital money invested in those schools because most of it has been spent on rent or leasing costs.

Legislators were able to put so much money into school construction projects this year because they agreed to borrow part of the amount. Florida has usually used bond proceeds to pay for buildings, but legislators had stopped doing it the last several years due to the strong opposition from Gov. Rick Scott. Their decision to buck Scott could prompt the governor to veto the entire list of projects.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican and House budget chairman, defended the idea of borrowing money now, citing low interest rates.

“It’s a good opportunity and a good time to do it,” Corcoran said.

Budget negotiators also agreed on state worker benefits for the coming year. They agreed to give pay raises to a small group of employees, including crime lab analysts and state firefighters. But they rejected an across the board pay raise for all state workers. Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chief, said last week there wasn’t enough available money in this year’s roughly $80 billion budget to hand out a raise to everyone.

But legislators did agree to freeze health insurance premiums again for all state workers.

That means nearly 30,000 high ranking employees in state government, including the governor, staff at the Florida Legislature and Attorney General Pam Bondi, will continue pay either $8.34 a month for individual coverage or $30 a month for family coverage. Rank-and-file state workers pay $50 a month for individual coverage or $180 a month for family coverage. House and Senate members also pay this rate.

Scott has proposed requiring all state workers to pay the same amount, but his suggestion has been rejected for six straight years.

Lee said he didn’t want to kick off the “top of an anthill” by proposing premium increases for some state workers. He maintained that state workers have “lost ground” in recent years because they have not gotten pay raises and because legislators back in 2011 required them to start paying more for retirement.

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