(Tallahassee.com) - Florida legislators moved their $75-billion state budget package into position for adjournment of their election-year session Tuesday and revived a politically sensitive plan for letting undocumented immigrants get in-state tuition in state colleges.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who opposes the immigrant-tuition bill, allowed its House version (HB 851) to be put on the calendar for floor debate. Just over a week earlier, the Senate companion of the bill (SB 1400) had been stifled in the Senate Appropriations Committee when Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, refused to hold a hearing on it.
All week, scores of young protestors have kept a vigil in the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda, many of them wearing bright orange mortarboard caps and holding signs urging a vote on the House-passed bill. It's politically important to Gov. Rick Scott, who alienated Hispanic voters in 2010 by promising to bring an Arizona-style immigration enforcement law to Florida — but now supports in-state tuition for undocumented residents, known as "Dreamers."
"They're just trying to live the American dream," said Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera. "They've been contributing to society and we want them to be able to get an education at a reasonable price."
In-state tuition is about one-fourth of the cost of regular tuition. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the major Senate proponent of the plan, has proposed language to hold down tuition increases at universities, a main ingredient of Scott's re-election platform.
As Senate president, Gaetz could have let the matter die in Negron's budget committee, for lack of a hearing. But a floor motion by Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, was approved without objection — putting the House bill on the Senate calendar for passage in the final hours of the session.
"A majority of the members of the Senate want to have this bill heard," said Gaetz. "My job as presiding officer, it's my job to abide by the will of the Senate."
Latvala said enough senators have voiced support for the bill to assure passage in the Senate. He credited House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, with making the idea politically palatable in the Republican-run Legislature.
"The speaker has been the prime mover in getting it where it is today," he said. "Everybody's in a conciliatory mood as we get close to the end of the session."
Latvala, a major player in reforming the Florida Retirement System, said that issue will go down to the wire — and may well fail when the session ends Friday night.
The House passed a bill (HB 7181) that would close the FRS to newly hired Senior Management employees and elected officers, raise the vesting period from eight years to 10 and change the "default" provision so new employees who make no choice of pension membership will go into the 401(k)-style investment plan. Currently, those who don't specify a pension choice default into the traditional pension plan.
The House coupled its FRS package with a non-controversial bill changing rules for local governments in apportioning insurance taxes that fund improvements in police and firefighter pensions. The Senate passed its own version of the local pension bill Monday and plans to treat the FRS and local bills as separate issues.
Opponents say that the House cobbled together the FRS and local pension bills so the latter measure could persuade some skeptical members to take the whole package.
"I don't think the votes are there in the Senate to pass it yet," said Latvala.
Gaetz and Negron defended the presence of "member projects" in the budget, line items that are sometimes called "turkeys." After years of having to cut budgets, lawmakers came to town this year with about $1.2 billion in new revenue to use and they started with $400 million in tax and fee cuts for vehicle licenses. But they also have numerous local projects to tell their voters about, in their re-election races.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said he regretted the lack of general pay raises in the budget, which provides 5 percent salary hikes for law enforcement but not even the "bonuses" for top performers.
"We have exceptionally hard-working employees, and study after study has shown that we have the lowest number, per capita, of state government employees to population," said Montford. "But we just don't make raises for them a high enough priority in budgeting."
The appropriations chairman and Senate president said legislators took care of education, child protective services, environmental clean-up and other pressing needs. They said legislators are elected to take care of their districts, as well as deciding how much to spend on requests from state agencies and the judicial branch of government.
"Why are there individual projects in the budget? The answer is because 19 million people in the state of Florida elect 40 senators and 120 House members, and provide us with input about what they think is important in their own communities," said Gaetz. "The only received, divine wisdom does not come from executive agencies."
After an afternoon meeting with House Appropriations Committee Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, Negron said the House and Senate worked out a good budget. He said the document would be made final in the evening, allowing the 72-hour clock to start running and permitting House and Senate budget votes Friday evening — followed by "sine die" adjournment of the 60-day session.
"We're funding billions and billions of dollars in the classroom and giving them a significant increase, but we're the appropriators, we were elected to make budget decisions," said Negron. "There's a good balance between funding the core needs of our public schools while at the same time acknowledging the needs of members' projects, what they think are important."