Senate tries to avoid budget rules conflict


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In a bid to avoid a bitter fight over the state budget, the Senate on Thursday unveiled a new rule that would govern how lawmakers handle local projects sprinkled through the spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

The proposal, which would be a joint rule of the House and Senate, would try to accommodate the concerns of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. Corcoran has made waves by pushing a rule through his chamber barring lawmakers from approving any project that wasn't first submitted to the House as an individual bill.

Senate leaders said they were confident an agreement could be reached.

"I don't think we'd be going through this exercise if we weren't optimistic that between the chambers we could identify the snares, bevel some edges and get it done," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is set to become president of the chamber after the 2018 elections.

Speculation had whirred around the Capitol that the Senate could be gearing up for a lawsuit against the House, arguing that the House rule would undermine the Senate's authority to run its own affairs. Galvano attempted to tamp down those rumors after a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee where the dispute was discussed.

"What you heard today was not a precursor to a litigation or a judicial action," he said.

But in a statement issued by his office, Corcoran said the prospect of legal action had come up. He also suggested the House wasn't intimidated.

"They threatened to sue us if we put that language in our House rules," Corcoran said. "We're still waiting. If they want to sue the House for fighting on behalf of the people for unprecedented levels of transparency, accountability, and public scrutiny of pork barrel spending, I'll pay their filing fee."

"We will welcome the Senate with open arms if they're willing to join us in reining in pork barrel spending and providing greater transparency and accountability," he continued.

The rule proposed Thursday by the Senate would ease the House restrictions while still limiting what negotiators can consider in conference committee meetings held to hammer out differences between the two chambers' budgets.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said the new rule would allow conference committees to consider any items included in either the House or Senate budget. Any lawmaker hoping to insert a new idea during the negotiations would have to provide specific information about the proposal, and the conference would have to offer time for public testimony.

Perhaps as significantly, the Senate rule would not allow a conference committee agreement to be challenged on the floor based on an individual project and would supersede any rule to the contrary --- essentially blunting the impact of the House regulation on a final budget deal.

Latvala said the Senate proposal was sparked by a realization between himself and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, that the two chambers could be headed to a conflict. The Senate has not adopted the House rule, and some senators have bristled at the House's attempt to impose its rule on the budget process.

"Given that situation, it appeared to the president and I that we had two options," Latvala told a meeting of the Senate Rules Committee. "One was to go ahead as we've always done and pass our budget and once we got ready to go into conference, see who blinked first. ... The other option was to be proactive and try to resolve the situation."