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House and Senate chart path to session close

 The Florida Senate and House could begin budget negotiations this week.  Leaders have held informal talks about the differences between the two proposed spending plans.  James Call reports, the Senate’s top budget writer says there are a couple of issues that need to be resolved before a conference committee will be appointed to finalize the state spending plan for next year.

Neither the House nor the Senate has appointed members to a conference committee, where formal budget negotiations take place. But speaking from the Senate floor, budget committee chairman JD Alexander said he and his House counterpart, Representative Denis Grimsley, are having a good discussion and making progress on lots of issues.

“A very constructive dialog, and resolve many issues. Just got a couple more we need to iron out with our colleagues.”

The Senate approved a $70.7 billion state budget. The House proposed a $69.2 billion spending plan.  The major differences between the two involve higher education, health care and transportation. The Senate wants more money for building roads and gives fewer dollars to the state university system and cuts different areas of Medicaid. Although the two sides are about $1.5 billion dollars apart, House Speaker Dean Cannon says he’s approaching the upcoming negotiations cautiously optimistic.

“There are always differences in a bicameral legislature. My kind of view from 30,000 feet is the House and Senate are closer together this session than they were last session. So I am cautiously optimistic that we will be able to get there. There are some policy choices in the budget and some numerical differences that will have to be ironed out but I don’t see any insurmountable obstacles to coming together with conference allocations and or getting the budget done.” 

A conference committee is a temporary panel created to resolve differences between similar House and Senate bills.  The differences can be in allocations, dollar amount, or in policy choices. For instance, this year, university funding is one of the bumps on the road to a budget agreement. The House wants to allow the University of Florida and Florida State to raise tuition by a greater percentage than the other nine schools. The Senate wants the university system to absorb a $400 million dollar cut by having each university dip into its reserves, or what Senate President Mike Haridopolos calls “savings”.

“We’ve made a stand in general that saying we believe there should be a sweep from savings at these universities across the board because that’s what you use when time is tough. You use your savings account. The senate version of the bill, you know, what we do we take that savings account and make sure there are no recurring cuts to the overall budget. That’s what we are focused on. If the speaker chooses to make a big push on the UF-FSU issue that he is passionate abou,t I’m very receptive to listen to that offer.”  

The House and Senate also take different approaches to health and human services spending. The House cuts twice as much money from the budget for hospitals and nursing homes treating Medicaid patients. The Senate reduces funding for mental health and drug treatment programs.   Bradenton Senator Mike Bennett says the conference committee process gives the negotiators an opportunity to explain the thinking behind the spending and policy choices represented in a budget.

“Once we sit down with the other side and all of a sudden you start listening to what they are saying then it is easier to get together and say, ‘oh yea, we didn’t look at it that way  now we see what you are talking about, yea, we can move to that position.  Or there is somewhere in between so, it is really not until those negotiations that you get a good feel of what it was that they were trying to do and then you go from there.”

Lawmakers closed a projected $1.4 billion shortfall with spending cuts. Some members though did insert local projects, known as earmarks, turkeys or pork into the budget. There’s an allocation for a Bays of Pigs Museum in Miami, a regatta in Sarasota and a jail in Flagler County.  Speaker Cannon.

“I think that there has always been, and probably always be, projects of regional or region specific nature in the budget. It’s the job of the conferees and the House and Senate that we stand behind it on a case by case basis. Each one of them is specific; some of them may be defensible some of them may not that is what conference is all about.”

If a joint conference committee finds the defense of an allocation lacking then it is tossed. The conference committee produces a final spending plan. After each chamber approves it, the budget goes to Governor Rick Scott who has final word on the spending plan with the power to exercise a line-item veto.