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House nears lopsided vote on budget


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 10, 2016..........A proposed $82.3 billion budget is set to pass the state House by an unusually lopsided margin Friday, as Democrats band together with Republicans in what could serve as a warning to Gov. Rick Scott.

During a House debate on the budget Thursday, lawmakers from both parties hailed the spending plan for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. And while some signs of discontent emerged, almost all House members who spoke said they would ultimately support the proposal Friday.

Lawmakers could not vote on the budget Thursday because a required 72-hour review period that began Tuesday afternoon hadn't yet expired.

Some House members have suggested that the final number of votes against the budget in the 120-member chamber could be in the single digits. While unanimous or near-unanimous votes on budgets are common in the more-congenial Senate, even the most broadly supported budgets in the more-partisan House generally draw "no" votes from a dozen or so Democrats.

But House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said Thursday he will vote for the spending plan for the first time in his eight years in the House. Pafford said legislative budget-writers removed many of the initial aspects of a House proposal that had rankled Democrats, from language banning funding for Planned Parenthood to a lack of bonding for school construction.

"At this point, the budget has improved. ... And I want to send a very clear message to the Legislature and the other chamber and, frankly, the governor's mansion that the House has defined itself and, I think, done a good job," Pafford said.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Pafford said it would have been "disingenuous" to vote against the budget after Republicans addressed his complaints.

The support from Democrats could also complicate any plans Scott has to retaliate against lawmakers who largely ignored his priorities in crafting the spending plan. Scott will get a tax cut that is a sliver of the $1 billion reduction he had sought, and the Legislature zeroed out his pitch for $250 million in economic incentives.

That has prompted speculation that Scott will use his line-item veto to cut deeply into House and Senate members' priorities, and that lawmakers might return to Tallahassee for a rare vote on whether to override his decisions.

Asked whether the bipartisan support served as a warning to the governor, Pafford responded: "I don't know what it is to the governor. I could care less, frankly. This chamber and the Senate have an opportunity to override him, and I hope we look at that at some point."

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, shied away from a similar question.

"I think, ultimately, when (Scott) looks at this budget, he'll recognize that there are great opportunities across the state, from region to region," he said.

Whether or not the vote would serve as a message to Scott, some Democrats suggested it would have been impossible without him, suggesting that the governor has alienated Republicans to the point that they were willing to buck him.

"If you were to try to find the single most important factor as to why we are doing this this week, it's because we have a governor who refuses to govern. ... For too long, the governor has seemed to govern by press release, with surprise vetoes, with vengeful vetoes motivated not by policy reasons but by sending messages to members of the Senate or members of the House that the governor disagrees with," Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said.

But even as they lined up to back the budget, lawmakers on both sides had complaints about its priorities. In a reversal from most years, many of the most-heated criticisms of the spending plan came from Republicans.

Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, ripped the low pay for some state workers, including corrections officers and state firefighters --- though the latter would receive a raise in the current plan.

"We have the money, but we are cheating our state employees," Van Zant said.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven, archly noted that the final budget would include more than $200 million for health care above what the House initially proposed. The Senate, which initially proposed funding Scott's economic incentive plan, backed off when lawmakers agreed on how much to spend in each area of the budget.

The Senate has long been more supportive of health-care spending than the House, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, is a hospital executive.

"If you do the math, it becomes kind of apparent that the governor's economic incentive money went into hospitals," Wood said. "And while some people in the Senate might think that that's the better priority, the folks that I heard from back home, the business generators, the chambers of commerce, the people that are pushing small business and pushing the economy of Florida, were in favor of the governor's incentive money."