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State Legislature opens with $55.4 billion budget

For baseball, opening day begins with optimism from baseball players that their performance will improve from previous years. In government, opening day begins with optimism about improving budgets and spending.

The Florida Legislature opened Tuesday with a $55.4 billion budget proposal, a figure legislators are hoping will not change too much by the end of the 60-day session.

The proposal is a 2.6 percent increase from last year’s proposal, and the requested budget for higher education is $144.1 million. Gov. Jeb Bush credited a growth in Florida’s tourism industry that has improved the economy and that could make his proposed numbers work for the upcoming fiscal year.

An improved economy or not, USF political science professor Susan MacManus said Bush’s budget proposal will not be passed exactly as he recommended it. In fact, that doesn’t happen in any state. But MacManus said the state does have a healthier economy and that funding for higher education will improve from budgets that have been passed in recent years.

But a legislative session during an election year is a different circumstance, MacManus said.

“Most of these people have to run for re-election,” MacManus said. “So you don’t do much to rock the boat in the legislature during a re-election year. But obviously these people do have to return back to their districts so there are things they have to push for.”

Before the Legislature met, Bush said in his State of the State address that one of the priorities is to finish on time. In the past two years, special sessions were needed so lawmakers could finish business in the legislature.

“The key question is will they finish on time. (They want to avoid) not going into one special session after another when money is tight,” MacManus said.

The proposed $55.4 million budget may not change drastically, MacManus said, so long as the economy continues to improve.

“I’m expecting that if the economy continues to increase there might be a little more to spend. Typically governors’ budgets are conservative based on their projections on a year that might have a rosier economy,” MacManus said.

As for the $144.1 million proposed for higher education among Florida’s 11 universities, MacManus said that the number seems workable.

“One of the things that has helped higher education is what you’re seeing is that more university board of trustee members are pushing the legislature to give the money to higher education,” MacManus said. “That’s why having legislatures from your own area is very important. USF has a fairly large legislative (representation).”

Bush’s proposal for state university funding also calls for $50 million for enrollment growth and $10 million for targeted program incentives to reward universities that produce more teachers, nurses and engineers. Also requested was $72.7 million for increases in salaries, health, retirement benefits and risk management insurance that was not included in university budgets during last year’s session.

Whether universities will receive nearly that much for salaries and health benefits seems not as promising.

“They’ll get some, but probably not as much as proposed. I would say that I think legislators have been made aware that Florida university salaries lag behind many neighboring states,” MacManus said.

Bush also requests that private gift matching remain funded. Last year, $65.4 million was appropriated for matching private donations to state universities. This year, Bush wants an additional $25 million.

However, MacManus said, legislators are not going to support all of Bush’s proposals.

“Legislators never rubber-stamp a governor’s proposed budget. That’s true in any state because if they did they would look like puppets of the governor,” MacManus said.

For that reason, MacManus said, an approved budget is always going to look different from the proposal.

“That’s just the nature of the game,” MacManus said.