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Legislature approaches the halftime mark

As lawmakers near the halfway mark in their 60-day legislative session a Senate budget proposal is slowly taking shape.  Committee chairs want to cut about $850 million from health care programs while boosting spending on public schools by more than a billion dollars. James Call reports, the Senate President said that for the most part things are on track, even though some senators are openly questioning some of the priorities outlined in the proposed spending plan.

A Transportation Appropriation Subcommittee’s work came to a halt Tuesday morning amid a flurry of questions about the group’s spending proposal for roads, tourism and economic development. The panel was unable to finish its review of the plan before the start of a Senate floor session; where Senate President Mike Haridopolos handed the 15-member subcommittee the legislative equivalent of Saturday morning detention.

So, on Friday morning, the rest of the day will be free, but those on the transportation appropriation committee will have the opportunity to go into that committee meeting at 7 in the morning on Friday. If you still have things you would like to discuss in committee, if it is completed by Thursday, there will be no committee meeting on Friday but that is available to those who have additional questions and concerns.”

Senate allocations for specific budget items like education and health care are coming out almost a month after the House’s. And while committee chairs appear to want to push their proposals up the chain of command to the budget committee, individual Senators want to dive into the details. Haridopolos says Senators are being deliberate and methodical in building a budget proposal. Lawmakers are scheduled to be in session until March 9th.

"We want to make sure every question is asked and answered. And so they will have time Thursday and Friday at least in that committee, as is necessary. In other committees things seem to be going just fine, but I would imagine given the nature of the cuts we are going to make, I think it is always best to have as much discussion as possible.”

While the Senate is slowly releasing details of its spending plan the House is expected to approve a $69.2 billion budget next week. The Governor proposed a $66.4 billion spending plan. The Senate’s budget work has stalled partly due to a dispute on privatizing 27 South Florida prisons. Private companies would have to agree to operate the facilities at a savings of at least seven-percent. But Haridopolos says he currently doesn’t have the votes to pass the plan. And he was counting on savings from privatization to balance the overall state budget.

“And so until we have a firm understanding on that we are going to have to take that money that you asked about earlier from other parts of the budget. That means we will have to take a little more out of schools, health care or other benefits packages for state employees, you never know.  Everything is on the table when people can’t make tough decisions on one issue it is going to impact somewhere else.  This is a water ballon process.  And if you choose not to cut in one area it is going to come out of another area. Because we are not going to raise taxes to do so.”

The budget is one of two bills that lawmakers have to pass this year. The other is redistricting -- the drawing of new districts for the state senate, House of Representatives and the Congressional delegation. Lawmakers draw new boundaries once every ten years to reflect changes in populations. The new maps need to be approved in time for an August primary election.  Haridopolos says lawmakers are on track to finish much earlier than the redistricting efforts of 1992 and 2002.

“And those who have been here longer than I have, know we are well on ahead of schedule. Talk about Senator Margolis, they finished in July with the court’s help. When I was here back in 2002 it was in late June or early July.  We are going to pass that, all expectations are on Thursday… get it into the attorney general and get it into the courts.”

Once the Senate approves the maps, the Florida Supreme Court will review the ones for the state senate and House to see if they comply with state laws regarding redistricting.  In 1992 and 2002 the congressional maps were challenged in court and that is expected to happen again.  Lawmakers want to have the new maps approved by June 4th, the deadline for legislative candidates to file for the 2012 election.