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Florida to grant taxpayers brief reprieve

St. Petersburg Times staff
TALLAHASSEE - Consumers will get temporary relief at the gas pump and the cash register this summer as part of a deal lawmakers struck Tuesday on a $58-billion state budget.

But the compromise means a popular sales tax holiday and gasoline tax cut will be smaller than lawmakers planned.

It's the first time in three years lawmakers have approved the popular sales tax holiday, which will run July 24-Aug. 1 and apply to school supplies and clothing worth less than $50. Lawmakers had proposed the tax holiday for purchases up to $100.

The House wanted the gas tax cut but the Senate was reluctant because of concerns that the savings would not reach consumers. But Attorney General Charlie Crist will be empowered to prosecute retailers or wholesalers who do not reduce prices.

The budget deal means millions more for Hillsborough and Pasco schools because of a new funding formula that threatened passage of the budget.

South Florida school districts will lose millions of dollars because of the new formula, but not as much as the Senate has proposed. The smaller tax holiday and gasoline tax break allowed lawmakers to lessen the impact.

"I am happy to report that the eagle has landed," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said in announcing the deal. "It is over for the budget."

It will be the first time since 2001 that lawmakers have finished the budget without a special session.

Gov. Jeb Bush praised the agreement, saying he provided "just enough" pressure to help shepherd it through. "I really appreciate the compromise that was reached," Bush said.

House members applauded the compromise on school funding.

"It really is a great day in the state of Florida when we can pull together the House," said Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City.

Lawmakers can debate the budget over the next three days but cannot vote on it until 7 p.m. Friday because of a 72-hour cooling off period to allow the public time to review it.

The election-year budget does not raise taxes, unless the House agrees to a Senate proposal to increase the tobacco tax on off-brand cigarettes.

But it includes higher tuition at community colleges and universities and it shifts millions of dollars from trust funds for general use. It also boosts some fees and fines.

Court fines and fees will increase, as the state assumes more of the cost to run the courts starting July 1. Divorces would cost $55 instead of $18, raising $2.5 million for domestic violence shelters. Traffic fines will go up by $15. Higher court recording fees will generate $104 million.

What began as a philosophical showdown between the House and Senate over raided trust funds and other one-time sources of money culminated in a compromise that spared many of the social service programs senators threatened to cut to balance the budget.

The state will spend about $22-billion on social services programs. The Medically Needy program, which serves extremely ill people who don't have insurance, survived another year. So did prenatal care to about 7,000 women, which the Senate proposed cutting.

Public schools will get a modest increase of 4.5 percent per student next year, with most of that money for reducing class sizes, not teacher salaries.

"This still is a good year for education," said Rep. Bev Kilmer, R-Quincy, head of the House K-20 Committee. "The schools are going to come out fine."

Undergraduate tuition at the 11 universities will go up 7.5 percent next year, the ninth consecutive tuition increase. Out-of-state, graduate and professional students' tuition will go up at least 12.5 percent, and could climb to 15 percent, depending on the school.

The average instate student would pay an extra $219, raising the annual bill to $3,139. Florida has one of the lowest tuition rates in the nation.

"I think we have to start worrying about middle-class families," said John Cavanaugh, president of the University of West Florida in Pensacola. "Families could be stretched."

Lawmakers carved out $120 million for water projects, including several in the Tampa Bay area, and $300-million for land conservation.

State workers will get $1,000 more. An effective antismoking program was shrunk to $1-million from a high of $70-million five years ago after getting nothing last year. Counties will be forced to cover the cost of housing juvenile offenders from the state, estimated at $90-million statewide.

The most contentious budget issue involved the arcane school funding formula, which seeks to compensate counties with high costs of living.

Pinellas is one of 10 counties that will lose $100,000 or more under the formula, but the compromise includes a one-year provision to cushion the blow, funded with the smaller tax breaks on gasoline and school purchases.

Hillsborough and Pasco are among 11 districts that will get at least $1 million more.

Miami-Dade and Broward took the hardest hit - a combined $17.9 million for 2004-05, and nearly $36-million less the following year from 2003-04.

The House had opposed the new formula, even though it benefited Hillsborough, Byrd's home county. Byrd, a U.S. Senate candidate with strong backing from South Florida House members, persuaded the Senate to accept the $22-million cushion.

House budget chief Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, said money is set aside for unresolved items, including new judges and a sixth District of Court of Appeal in Tampa. Kyle supports the new appeals court but conceded that senators resist the idea.

Senate Democratic Leader Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, said the budget didn't go far enough. Too many kids who need health insurance won't get it. Students will have to pay more to get an education, Klein said.

"The budget is still tough," Klein said. "The priorities are skewed."

Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, was ecstatic that the gasoline tax he proposed was going to pass, a rare Democratic victory in a Republican-dominated Legislature, though he wanted a 10-cent cut. "This is not unusual, this wrangling at the end of session," Henriquez said. "It doesn't bother me at all. We'll take the eight cents."

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