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State budget plans will go down to the last minute of session 2012

Florida lawmakers Tuesday afternoon broke a stalemate over budget negotiations. James Call reports, after the House budget chief said talks had gone quiet and Senators displayed a united front, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos reached an agreement on the budget’s bottom line.

The day began with House Appropriations Chair, Rep. Denise Grimsley saying negotiations had fallen behind schedule compared to the previous year. She had received the latest Senate offer about 15 hours earlier, had not responded to the proposal and acknowledged time was growing short.

 “Essentially no progress had been made. I’m a little frustrated with it now that we are entering the very end of the 11th hour, almost the 12th.”

And while Grimsley was expressing frustration with the negotiations Senators showed a united front.  Senate Majority leader, Orlando’s Andy Gardner took to the floor and reminded his colleagues that the Senate has maintained from the beginning it was willing to wait out the House on spending decisions.  

“I think we have been very clear from the beginning if we need to come back we are prepared to do that. But what is more important is that we get it right, and that we do it right.”

Other senators, Democratic and Republican, picked up on Gardiners’ theme to get it right. Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich said her caucus would support the Senate’s position in a budget dispute with the House.

“I think we all signed a letter at one point saying that in order to get it right we would be willing to stay here as long as it took. And I can say at this point that is the way my caucus will feel about this and that we support the efforts of Chairman Alexander on this issue.”

The session is scheduled to end on the second Friday in March. But to underscore the Senate’s resolve,  Senate president designate Don Gaetz said he was willing to stay in Tallahassee and work on the budget until April.

“But I’ll tell you this, I’ll stay here for a Tallahassee Springtime, in order to make sure that we get the right budget, the right way, for the people of Florida. So Mr. President, thank you for your leadership thank you for standing strong for a united Senate.”

The hang up was over a $300 million cut to higher education. The Senate wanted the universities to cover it with money they have in reserve. The House wanted $200 million of the cut to be a permanent reduction. Senators refused to budget. And Senate President Mike Haridopolos said it was a point of respect for his chamber. The Senate had moved closer to the House proposal on Health and Human Services spending. And Haridopolos said the Senate wanted to see some movement from the House.

“We made accommodations to them on Health and Human Services, we would expect the same accommodation. We are equal chambers. Now I’ve gone out of my way the last couple of years, walking over to the House last year, really trying to work together with the House to say this isn’t the old arrogant Senate, this is an accommodating Senate-- always working together with you. But we are not going to sit here and disrespect the members of the chamber who worked hard on this budget and not have some give and take.”

A couple hours after the Senate clarified its position on the higher education budget, Haridopolos and Speaker Cannon issued a joint statement saying they had reached agreement on the allocations. The information was not available at the deadline for this story. A joint conference committee meeting was scheduled for Tuesday night. The Senate’s chief budget writer, Senator JD Alexander says lawmakers may be able to finish work on the budget by the scheduled end of the session.

“I think we are still close to doing it, by finishing by next Friday. But it’s getting razor thin.”

Legislators have seven days left to resolve the other differences between their two spending plans in order to end the session by March 9. That's because state law requires the final version of the budget to sit on lawmakers desks for 72 hours before a final vote.