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Florida House and Senate pass rival budgets that are more than $4 billion apart

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — After a partisan-charged debate, the Florida House on Thursday passed its version of a new state budget by an 86-29 vote. The Senate had unanimously passed its version of a budget by a unanimous vote a day earlier.

But a wide gap exists between the two chambers and it could be difficult for the two sides to reach an agreement by the time the session ends on May 1.

Here's a quick look at the two spending plans and why it may be hard for the Republican-controlled Legislature to resolve the differences:


HOW BIG ARE THE BUDGETS?

The budget passed by the House is nearly $76.2 billion. The Senate budget is roughly $80.4 billion.


WHY IS THERE SUCH A BIG DIFFERENCE?

The main reason is because the Senate included billions in federal aid intended to help the state's hospitals and expand health coverage to roughly 800,000 Floridians.

The Senate is seeking federal money because an existing program that assists hospitals is scheduled to expire later this year. The "low income pool" program, which pays hospitals to treat the poor and uninsured, was first approved when Jeb Bush was governor. Federal officials warned the state a year ago that it would not extend the funding beyond 2015.

The Senate has crafted a potential replacement program for its hospitals that could continue to draw down federal funding. The House budget does not include any extra federal money for hospitals.

House Republicans are also staunchly opposed to expanding health coverage because it is linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House budget chief, vowed Thursday that the House would never agree to expand Medicaid eligibility as proposed by the Senate.


TAX CUTS REMAIN IN LIMBO

Another major sticking point right now is tax cuts. The House has set aside nearly $700 million for a package of tax cuts. This package includes a proposal to cut state taxes on cellphones and cable television bills, a three day back-to-school tax holiday and the elimination of sales tax on college textbooks. Senate leaders say they support tax cuts, but Senate President Andy Gardiner has said the Senate won't agree to an amount until there is a resolution on health care funding issues.


EDUCATION

Both the House and Senate budgets would increase money that now goes to public schools. Both budgets would boost per-student funding by at least 3 percent over this year's budget. The House budget also includes a $45 million bonus pool for top-rated teachers. The House and Senate budgets also do not rely on any tuition hikes for university or college students.


WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? Usually House and Senate leaders negotiate behind the scenes to come up with a final deal on how much money to spend. Then they have conference meetings to finalize individual spending items.

But negotiations may be on hold for a while due to the stalemate on health care spending. Under Florida law, the budget must be on the desks of lawmakers 72 hours before a final vote is taken. If legislators can't resolve their differences, they will have to hold a special session to pass a budget. Florida's fiscal year starts July 1.

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