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Florida governments like House version of stimulus plan

School districts and county governments across Florida have a favorite when it comes to the two competing federal economic recovery packages: the House version.

As Senate and House negotiators began Tuesday to hammer out a compromise they hope to send to President Barack Obama by the close of the week, school boards and county officials began readying e-mails and hitting the phones to push for pet provisions in the final product.

''Obviously, we like the House money,'' said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, whose members -- hard hit by state budget cuts -- were in Washington last week lobbying for increased education funding. ``It would get Florida schools back to the point where we were two years ago.''

And Miami-Dade County signed onto a letter to Congress asking to include money in the compromise to expand the Neighborhood Stabilization Program which helps states, counties and cities rehabilitate vacant and foreclosed properties. The House bill calls for $4 billion for the program. The Senate, zero. County officials note foreclosures are on the rise: 6,580 properties in December, up from 5,981 in November. `GREAT DEAL OF ANGST'

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who accompanied Obama to Florida Tuesday to sell the package, said she's hoping negotiators will be able to restore some of the spending the Senate spurned. ''There's a great deal of angst many of us feel for getting some of that stuff back in,'' she said. ``We've got to avoid laying off teachers and firefighters.''

Wasserman Schultz also hopes to bring more Republicans on board for the House vote: No Republicans voted for the measure last month, saying they don't believe it will spark the economy.

In Tallahassee, the Republicans who control the state Legislature had mixed feelings about the proposed stimulus package. They bashed the package as being too much of a ''spending bill'' -- but acknowledged they want more federal money.

WATCHING FOR STRINGS

Niceville Republican state Sen. Don Gaetz said the state could ''absolutely'' use the money, though he said the Legislature needs to watch for strings attached to the package. Gaetz and other lawmakers are concerned that the federal government would encourage the state to increase the size of education and healthcare spending, but that once the federal money is spent, the state would be left with programs and no money to pay for them.

''The big problem is the appetite for spending -- this money hasn't arrived yet and it has been spent 11 times over already,'' Gaetz said. ``We need to avoid the Chinese restaurant effect in which you eat your fill, step outside and burp and then you're hungry again.''

The House version has a provision that could make it more difficult for Florida to win federal money for education because the state has repeatedly cut the education budget. The Senate version would allow the U.S. secretary of education to grant Florida and other states a waiver so they could be considered for the federal money. Blanton expects the compromise to reflect that language.

Though Democrats would like to include some of the House provisions in the final product, they might not have the leverage: The Senate needs Republican votes to clear the final bill out of the chamber, and only three Republicans backed the Senate measure on Tuesday.

Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, for example, voted against the bill, despite several conversations with Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who backs it.

''It was very clear to me, while I might be able to tinker on the edges . . . it wasn't going to dramatically change the nature of the bill, which is a massive spending bill,'' Martinez told reporters Tuesday, noting the bill ``spends money on a lot of good things, but many of which are not stimulative. They're not targeted and they're not designed to create jobs.''

(Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report from Tallahassee.)

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