House and Senate leaders kick-off budget workby John Kennedy | March 18th, 2013
House Speaker Will Weatherford released budget allocations Monday to House committees that will begin putting together next year’s state spending plan — calling for at least $1 billion more for public schools and enough cash to increase state worker pay for the first time in six years.
The Senate followed suit by also handing its budget committees their shares. While Weatherford provided a roadmap to priority items, Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, kept quiet about items where his chamber is looking to spend cash.
Negron, however, did criticize a “lack of leadership in Washington,” for making state budgeting more uncertain.
The Legislature’s closing weeks will be consumed with budget work. But the leaders’ allocations are essentially the public kick-off of the process.
“For the first time in seven years, we are no longer facing a significant budget shortfall,” Weatherford said Monday, in a memo to House members. ” This is not only attributable to improved economic conditions but also to your hard work by making responsible choices in tough times to balance our budget and provide a fiscally sustainable future.”
State economists Friday night enhanced their tax collection forecast, concluding that lawmakers will have more than $1 billion extra to spend this spring – even after matching the same spending and reserve accounts of the curent $70 billion budget.
Like Negron, economists concluded that Washington’s handling of automatic spending cuts that took effect March 1 has made it tougher to predict the state’s budget future.
While both sides welcome the bounty of extra cash, the House acknowledged it still skims another $300 million from state trust funds to supplement spending.
While the Senate didn’t specificially address how it handles trust funds, such raids have been common in recent belt-tightening years, usually drawing push-back from road-builders, environmentalists and other advocates angered by having earmarked funds diminished.
Weatherford, however, said pointedly that the House won’t reduce transportation funds, which Gov. Rick Scott and others see as key to fostering more business development in Florida.
In other provisions, the speaker said that the House will restore to Florida’s 12 public universities the $300 million they lost last year in a budget cut. Weatherford, who is pushing to revamp the Florida Retirement System, also pledged to steer more than $500 million into the $126 billion account to reduce its unfunded liability.