House, Senate enter budget talks with gap


The House on Thursday approved an $81.2 billion budget proposal for the year that begins July 1, setting up negotiations with the Senate aimed at bringing the annual legislative session to an end by its scheduled conclusion May 5.

Despite complaints from some Democrats --- largely centered on what wasn't funded by the House --- the spending plan passed on a bipartisan vote, 89-26.

That came a day after the Senate unanimously approved what amounts to an $85.1 billion budget (SB 2500) when compared directly to the House. That means legislative leaders will need to bridge a gap of $3.9 billion on the overall size of the plan before negotiating committees can hammer out a deal on how to divide the money.

"We still have a lot of work to do," said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.

There are a handful of issues complicating the negotiations. One concerns whether to tap the growth in local property-tax revenues coming from increased property values to help boost education funding. House leaders view that as a tax increase, which they vow to oppose, while Senate leaders do not.

Another issue concerns whether to authorize bonds to help pay for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that is a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. House leaders have also said they will not allow bonds to be issued.

On Thursday, though, Negron said he expected the House to compromise on those issues as part of the negotiations over the final size of the budget.

"Neither side --- the House or the Senate --- has the right to dictate unilateral terms of surrender to the other side," he said.

The day before, though, Trujillo continued to insist that he and other House leaders like Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, were opposed to a compromise on the property-tax issue.

"We're not going to raise taxes," Trujillo told reporters. "The speaker's made it abundantly clear that's a deal-breaker for him. So I think the resolution is we're not going to raise taxes. I think it's that simple."

Another complicating factor came Wednesday, when Gov. Rick Scott and the federal government announced an agreement that will make available $1.5 billion to help pay for health care for poor and uninsured patients. The deal was larger than expected and could free up money to be used in other parts of the budget, but lawmakers were still studying the details Thursday.

An immediate deal seemed unlikely, given the upcoming holiday weekend. Because of a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off " period, lawmakers have to conclude all negotiations on the budget by May 2 if they hope to end the session on time.

House debate on the budget was relatively muted after lawmakers spent hours bickering about education and pension legislation related to the spending plan.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said the House showed that "our priorities are out of whack."

She scolded Republicans for not providing an across-the-board pay increase for state workers, something that is included in the Senate budget, not devoting enough money to education and eliminating economic-development incentives while scaling back tourism marketing.

"The only possible effect this could have on Florida's economy is a bad one," she said.

But Trujillo said that, given projected budget shortfalls in future years, it would be irresponsible to spend more money.

"It would be a lot easier to do that than it would be to have all these hearings, to review all the budgets, to spend a ton of time reviewing all the waste in government and to push back," he said. "That would have been the easiest path. We're not doing that."