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Differences Persist On Day Two Of Florida Budget Negotiations

Capitol building
Jessica Palombo

A second day of negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers over a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1 seemed to highlight longstanding divisions between the two chambers even as legislators tried to come to agreement.

The negotiations came during a special session called because lawmakers couldn't finish a budget—their one annual, constitutionally required duty—during the spring regular session. Legislators are trying to wrap up work by the scheduled end of the special session on June 20, or 10 days before the state must have a spending plan in place to avoid a government shutdown.

The joint House-Senate conference committee on health care, the issue most responsible for pushing the Legislature into overtime, didn't meet on Sunday after two sessions on Saturday. Lawmakers have already agreed to how much to send to hospitals and other medical providers that care for large numbers of low-income patients, but other differences remain, including how to divvy up that money among the state's hospitals.

Other negotiating panels met, but there were divisions. On environmental funding, the two chambers still disagree on whether to use bonds to fund projects like Everglades restoration.

"I would think that about the quickest way I could tell you the Senate position on it is, B-O-N-D is a four letter word," Sen. Alan Hays (R-Umatilla), who oversees the Senate's environmental budget committee, said Sunday. "I'm not trying to be cute. But I'm not considering bonding."

The House removed $33 million for new bonding—which would have generated more than $300 million—from its latest offer on the environmental budget. But Rep. Ben Albritton (R-Wauchula), who's leading the House negotiators, cautioned against reading too much into the chamber's new position.

"This is an olive branch," Albritton told reporters. "Remember, the chairman (Hays) said, and I agree, that everything on this is open."

The House argues that the state should take advantage of low borrowing costs while it can. "Money today is pretty cheap," Albritton said during the meeting.

Last week, Senate President Andy Gardiner said the Senate was hesitant about bonding because of the failure of a water-policy bill during the regular session. The Senate version of that bill included an oversight council to rate potential water projects, an idea opposed by the House.

"Without the oversight and some of the things that the Senate was very interested in, it made the bonding piece difficult," said Gardiner (R-Orlando).

Any bonding could also run into a veto from Gov. Rick Scott, who has trumpeted the fact that his administration has driven down state debt since he took office.

Senators working on the economic development budget also raised questions about $10 million the House wants to spend on "space infrastructure facilities." The money would go to improvements at Kennedy Space Center, according to Rep. Clay Ingram (R-Pensacola).

But Ingram, House chairman of the conference committee dealing with the issue, didn't directly answer questions from his counterpart, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater), about whether the improvements were connected to a specific effort by state officials to attract a space-related company.

"As I have told you earlier, $10 million is what you call real money...I don't think the Senate will be comfortable with agreeing to that particular item until we have a little more information about it," said Latvala.

Meanwhile, House and Senate lawmakers trying to hammer out an education budget struck on an area of disagreement that emerged Saturday, when the Senate looked to add several policy measures into a one-year budget-related bill.

The Senate proposal would broaden eligibility for personal learning scholarship accounts, which help parents of students with disabilities pay for educational services; put new limits on four-year degrees offered by the Florida College System; and require Florida school districts to teach students about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"Many of the new issues are not directly related to the budget and, to whatever extent we can, if they haven't been vetted by a House policy committee, we've trying to avoid that process," said Rep. Erik Fresen (R-Miami), who heads the House's education budget panel, said Sunday.

Several of the committees are expected to meet again Monday. If the conference committees can't finish their work by Tuesday, House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes), and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee (R-Brandon), will begin negotiating directly.

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