By BRANDON LARRABEE
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
House and Senate budget chiefs drew closer Sunday to a final agreement on the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, striking deals on a slew of local projects and throwing an elbow at the leader of the state’s prisons agency for an aggressive lobbying campaign.
Heading into Sunday evening, the only major outstanding issue between the two sides was the lion’s share of the education budget, which moved to high-level talks after earlier negotiations broke down. Lawmakers have to agree on the roughly $80 billion overall spending plan by Tuesday for the legislative session to end on Friday, as scheduled.
The largest agreement Sunday between House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, could be read as a direct challenge to Gov. Rick Scott. The two sides agreed to spend more than $713.5 million on education construction projects, with an unspecified share of the funding coming from bonds.
Scott has strongly opposed bonding in the past, but Corcoran defended the move because of the current rates the state could get on issuing debt to fund needed construction projects at public schools, colleges and universities.
“Any time you have rates that are this low, you’re getting money for much cheaper. … It’s a good opportunity, a good time to do it. And we’re doing it very prudently,” Corcoran said.
Lawmakers agreed to $150 million for public school maintenance, split evenly between traditional public schools and charter schools.
Other big-ticket items on the education list included $20 million to pay for the state share of a downtown Orlando campus for the University of Central Florida. That project — approved by the university system’s Board of Governors last week — is a top priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Overall, UCF would receive almost $42.3 million in construction funding under the House-Senate agreement, more than any other university in the 12-school system.
The projects approved on Sunday also showed the influence of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. Eastern Florida State College, in Crisafulli’s home county of Brevard, received $24.5 million in construction projects, more than all but one other state college.
And $60 million worth of water projects also agreed to Sunday funded several initiatives in Brevard County, including a $1.2 million drainage project at Merritt Island High School, the second-largest item on the list.
Earlier Sunday, Corcoran and Lee finished up negotiations on pay raises and other administrative areas of the budget. They agreed to salary increases for state firefighters, Florida Department of Law Enforcement crime-lab analysts and on-duty members of the National Guard.
Struck from the budget was a House proposal to spend $7 million to replace radio equipment for law enforcement, an item that has become ensnared in a dispute over procurement for the radios.
Corcoran and Lee also pushed back against the Florida Department of Corrections, which has aggressively lobbied to get 734 additional positions that the agency says are needed to make the state’s prisons more secure.
The new jobs are part of an effort by the department to have corrections officers work eight-hour shifts instead of 12-hour shifts. The department has been reeling from a series of reports about issues such as contraband smuggling and abuse of inmates.
On Saturday, the day after Corcoran and Lee had agreed to a criminal justice budget without the additional positions, Corrections Secretary Julie Jones issued a statement asking lawmakers to reconsider.
“We strongly believe that our request for 734 additional (positions) is an operational imperative that will increase both safety and security in our institutions,” she said. “Since the implementation of 12-hour shifts the department has observed significant increases in several areas that have contributed to increased risk within our facilities.”
On Sunday, Lee and Corcoran hit back, with Lee underscoring the troubles that have roiled the department since before Jones took over.
“What they haven’t told you is that they have 1,500 vacant positions and the reason they’re not able to hire is because of the cultural problems they have in the system, not because they don’t have enough positions authorized under statute. … We’re happy to help them over time try to get where they need to get, but they need to get their house in order,” he said.
The department says it has maintained those open positions to pay for overtime expenses that would drop if it had more officers.
Corcoran also said Jones needs to work with lawmakers to find some way to downsize the prison population — though lawmakers have in past years approved tough-on-crime bills that have extended sentences. The department also pushed for legislation (HB 1149), which lawmakers have sent to Scott, that would allow judges to come up with punishments besides jail time for some probation violations.
The agency issued a terse statement on Sunday in relation to Lee and Corcoran’s criticism.
“The department has clearly communicated the priorities in our legislative budget request,” it said. “We remain hopeful that our critical needs will be addressed by the Legislature this session.”