TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers closed in on an elusive budget deal Wednesday, even as Gov. Rick Scott ramped up criticism of the spending plan as he toured the state.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, announced Wednesday morning that the two chambers have agreed in principle on how to spend nearly $83 billion in the year that begins July 1.
There are still a few details to be worked out, according to the budget chiefs for the House and Senate, but nothing is expected to derail the emerging deal. The grinding pace of negotiations has already forced lawmakers into legislative overtime.
Lawmakers will move the final day of the annual session from Friday to Monday to allow time for a 72-hour budget "cooling off" period required by the Constitution.
At a noon meeting, House and Senate negotiators formalized their agreements on such things as the budget for environmental programs and said they were close on critical health-care issues. They also agreed to language on an array of issues and a list of education construction projects.
The meeting came after nearly 72 hours of talks behind closed doors aimed at bridging the budget gap.
As a part of the deal on the environmental budget, lawmakers decided not to set aside money for the Florida Forever land conservation program.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who boasts of being the father of the program, said he was "disappointed" by the decision, but it was necessary because the House demanded the state hold onto more money in reserves.
Latvala also said spending on other programs made the budget one of the most environmentally friendly in years.
"If buying raw land suffers for a year, so be it. Next year, I'll try to fix that," he said.
But environmental groups were already opening fire on the budget.
"To say that we are disappointed would be a gross understatement," said Aliki Moncrief, executive director of Florida Conservation Voters, in a statement issued Wednesday. "And to the millions of Florida's conservation voters I say: set up appointments to welcome your legislators back home next week and give them an earful."
The Senate also backed away from an attempt to restore some funds stripped from Central Florida State Attorney Aramis Ayala. Lawmakers targeted Ayala's office over her refusal to seek the death penalty in capital cases and Scott's decision to transfer 23 cases to another state attorney.
But Latvala said there were still discussions on language that could allow a state panel to decide where some of the money goes.
Meanwhile, Scott kicked off a statewide tour aimed at shaming the Legislature for declining to fund economic development incentives and approving just a fraction of his request for Visit Florida, a tourism marketing agency. Scott on Wednesday visited or was set to visit Lake Mary, Tampa, Riviera Beach and Sunrise.
In remarks carried by local television stations, Scott blasted the process that was unfolding in Tallahassee.
"I haven't seen the final budget," he said. "Have any of you? This is your tax dollars. That's not the way this should be done."
Latvala, who has been one of Scott's closest allies on budget matters this year, said he had kept in touch with the governor's office.
"I assume that there are staff members of the governor that are here," he said after the noon meeting. "The governor could be here himself to find out the same thing you're finding out if he was so inclined."
Lawmakers were still working to hammer out the finer points of the state's health-care budget. Key to that discussion was how to divide what was originally expected to be $651 million worth of hospital cuts. The two sides agreed to go with a House model in exchange for decreasing the size of the cut.
"We've made a lot, a lot of progress," said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. "We've agreed in concept."
The final deal will add about $50 million in state money for hospitals, which will in turn drawn down somewhere around $70 million in federal funds.
The deal also is expected to clear up a disagreement between the House and Senate about the Low Income Pool, which sends additional money to hospitals to care for poor and uninsured patients. Gov. Rick Scott recently announced that $1.5 billion will be available for the program, though state and federal officials have been negotiating details.
After the details are finalized, the state Agency for Health Care Administration is expected to submit a budget amendment for how the LIP money could be used and how it would be distributed. But the disagreement between the House and Senate centered on whether one of the legislative chambers could reject the budget amendment --- or whether rejection would require a decision by both the House and Senate.
In the budget deal, the House agreed to go along with the Senate position that both chambers would need to be in agreement.
"We wanted to make sure that it had to be a mutual decision," Latvala said.
The Agency for Health Care Administration said Wednesday that it had reached some agreements with the federal government on how the funds, expected to total $1.5 billion in local and federal money, could be used.
The agreements would increase the number of health-care facilities that could receive LIP funds; allow publicly owned hospitals, teaching hospitals and children's hospitals to be fully reimbursed for their charity care; and allow the state to offer full coverage to some people now covered by the "medically needy" program.
The discussions between state and federal officials on the LIP details, though, aren't expected to conclude until sometime this summer.