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After failed sessions in 2015, lawmakers end with budget on time

Florida lawmakers approved an $82.3 billion state budget and $400 million in tax breaks Friday, ending the 2016 session on time but under a cloud after stiffing Gov. Rick Scott on most of his priorities.

The House passed the budget 119-1, moments before the Senate followed with a 40-0 vote. The two-month session ended at 6:45 p.m.

Still, legislators fear that Scott could veto hundreds of millions of dollars in spending — payback for their failure to embrace his $1 billion tax-cut proposal and $250 million in economic incentives aimed at luring businesses to Florida.

Scott, though, hardly sounded combative Friday night, gathering with lawmakers outside the House and Senate chambers after the session ended.

The Republican governor called the spending plan “a good budget.” He also seemed to shrug off his list of legislative losses.

“Look, everybody comes up here with their ideas,” Scott said. “I doubt there’s any tax I wouldn’t like to cut … What’s important is we’re giving money back.”

The session’s final day included a number of stop-and-starts but none of the usual frenzy of last-minute deal-making between the House and Senate on policy issues.

Republican legislative leaders were intent on ending the election-year session smoothly and without any bare-knuckles drama, unlike a combative 2015, which included a regular session that ended without a budget, followed by three special sessions.

“We brought forth a great budget,” said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. “We brought forth great opportunity.”

Still, in a last swipe at the governor, the Senate failed Friday to confirm Florida Surgeon General John Armstrong, a Scott appointee. He’s out of a job held since 2012 and is the first governor’s agency head rejected by the Senate in 21 years.

Scott, though, put a good face on the rough session, which he called “very good.” Last year, he vetoed $461.4 million from the budget, including money for dozens of programs and projects in Palm Beach County.

“I’m clearly going to go through the budget like I have every year and make sure we spend our money wisely,” Scott said.

Scott also announced plans to launch a five-city tour Monday in Jacksonville touting 1 million jobs created in Florida since he took office and $1 billion in tax breaks – counting the state and local share of what was approved last year and just finalized by lawmakers.

But the rebellion against Scott seemed to unite Republicans and Democrats in both chambers.

“It will go down in the history books that Florida lawmakers formally declared their independence from Gov. Rick Scott,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner of Tampa.

Democrats never liked the GOP governor’s leadership, but the backlash by fellow Republicans had the familiar features of a power struggle, with lawmakers eager to exert control over state spending and policy matters.

The tax-cut plan OK’d by lawmakers would reduce the school tax rate paid by property owners by almost 6 percent; eliminate the sales tax that manufacturers have paid on equipment purchases, saving them $73 million; and give parents and students three tax-free shopping days for clothing and school supplies, Aug. 5-7.

A host of smaller scale cuts in a range of industry taxes — affecting metal recyclers, cruise ships, even the sale of pear cider — round out the package.

Scott’s $1 billion in cuts, which he campaigned for aggressively, were aimed almost exclusively at businesses. His bid for another $250 million in economic incentives also was dismissed by state lawmakers uneasy about handing the governor cash he could use to pick and choose companies he might woo to the state.

Instead, lawmakers have tipped the tax-break proposal more toward consumers.

The school property tax reduction will absorb $290 million of the package of cuts. The infusion of state dollars is designed to slow the steady rise in taxes many homeowners and businesses are paying as property values rebound from a recession-era collapse.

All told, lawmakers plan to increase public school funding $458 million, a 2 percent boost, which Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa recently dismissed as “embarrassing.”

But unlike most years, the schools increase will come from state taxes and fees other than state-required property taxes for schools. In Palm Beach County, the owner of a home valued at $250,000, with a $50,000 homestead exemption, would save $58 under the tax cut.

Scott had proposed a larger increase for schools but would have paid for it almost entirely by pulling more money from schools property taxes.

Scott, though, managed to come away with a few items on his wish list.

The state budget finally meets Scott’s 2014 campaign promise to top the state’s per-pupil school funding record. Although only a 1 percent per-pupil increase, the average $7,178 for each of the state’s 2.8 million school children, tops by $52 the state’s record, achieved in the pre-recession 2007-08 school year.

Lawmakers also sided with Scott in erasing a sales tax on manufacturing equipment purchases — saving the industry $73 million. The Legislature in 2013 erased the tax for three years, but Scott and lawmakers agreed to permanently take the levy off the books.

Lawmakers also approved a so-called health transparency bill (CS/HB 1175) not long before ending the session, a priority for the governor.

The measure is aimed at helping consumers track online the price and quality of services at Florida hospitals, and grows out of a health-care commission Scott formed last year to probe medical costs.

Scott had earlier criticized the proposal as not going far enough.

But Friday, he praised the measure adding, “while there is still more work to be done to empower patients at hospitals, this bill will help provide Floridians with information to make informed decisions.”

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