Austere Budget Finally Approved; Malpractice Insurance Rate Action Put Off

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Byline: Rich Tucker, Times-Union staff writer

TALLAHASSEE -- The Legislature late last night sputtered to the conclusion of its 16-day emergency session, passing its gaunt state budget along with bills implementing the state smoking ban and the class size reduction amendment.

Stopping skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance rates will be the primary task of the next special session, slated for June 16.

"We have proven that the Legislature can function if given the opportunity to do so," said President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, shortly before the Senate adjourned last night. "We've passed more significant legislation [in this special session] than in some whole sessions."

Despite several last-minute speed bumps yesterday, lawmakers completed the state budget -- the one task they must finish each year under the Florida Constitution. House members approved it, 78-38, and it passed in the Senate, 27-13.

The spending plan in recent days has swelled to $53.5 billion and includes more than $1.3 billion in non-recurring funds from one-time revenue sources. Senators, who had sought additional revenue for the state, predicted bleak times and deeper cuts next year.

"I would never run my business this way," said Senate rules chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "We're running out of tools in the tool kit to shore up what are some obvious revenue deficiencies."

This year's budget includes an additional $837 million for public schools, more than half of which will be used for constitutionally mandated class size reduction. It does not fund growing enrollments at state community colleges and universities, and it includes substantial cuts in transportation, courts and arts funding.

It also authorizes an 8.5 percent university tuition increase for in-state students and suspends the sales tax holiday on clothes and school supplies for the second consecutive year.

"Does it fall short?" asked Senate appropriations chairman Ken Pruitt, R-St. Lucie, during a floor speech yesterday. "You bet it does."

House members yesterday also passed legislation to implement the class size constitutional amendment, which calls for substantial class size reductions by 2010.

The measure, which passed through the Senate last week, lets high school students opt to earn a diploma in three years. …