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House and Senate work to beat the clock on the budget

Florida lawmakers are keeping one eye on the bottom line and another on the clock. Joint subcommittees are working on budgets for their area of expertise. Their spending plans will be folded into an overall state budget. James Call reports the subcommittees have until Friday to finish their work. That’s when the House and Senate budget chiefs plan to step in and take control of the negotiations.


 Early Wednesday morning in a basement committee room of the House Office building a staff member read into the record the latest House offer to the Senate on Higher Education spending.

“That includes a $285 million nonrecurring reduction and a $3.9 million recurring reduction…”

To get the talks started the House dropped its original proposal to make permanent cuts to state universities. Lawmakers intend to close a $1.4 billion shortfall with spending cuts. The Senate proposed a one-time cut of $300 million to the university system and refused to meet with House negotiators until there was an indication the House would drop its demand that the cuts be permanent.  It did, and Wednesday morning a joint conference committee of House and Senate higher Ed conferees sat together to talk budget. Daytona Senator Evelyn Lynn is the Senate’s lead negotiator.

“Well, it looks like they have agreed to a number of things. They disagreed with some. There’s that modified position that we’ll have to be looking at.  And we have to hear what our members have to say about it and come back with an offer.”

The dispute over the Higher Education budget had threatened to send the session into overtime.  Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander had said given his budget instructions that he couldn’t negotiate whether the proposed cuts should be non-recurring or permanent.

“That was nice they accepted the Senate’s view and allowed us to do just those non-recurring, those are difficult enough cuts to take. But I believe we can do that responsibly and make sure that we keep the important mission of our universities moving forward.”

The House has accepted the Senate plan for tuition. It calls for a 3-percent increase at state colleges and leaves any tuition increase up to the universities. The Senate reduced its proposal to sweep license and tags fees into the road building budget. The House agreed to a $200 million transfer, about half of what the Senate had proposed. The Senate also gave in on health and human services funding but is still proposing a bigger cut than what the House approved.  Alexander says the subcommittees have a Friday deadline to finish their work and then he and House Appropriations chair Denise Grimsley will take over negotiations. In Legislative speak, the process is known as bumping, as in the talks will bump up to the chairs. The bump will occur at 5 p.m. Friday.

“That seems to be a good time. By then the committees should have had enough time to work through the issues and are at a point where they aren’t making forward progress. And that’s when we really need to bump when the committees stop being able to come to a successful resolution.”

The plan gives the two chambers leading budget writers the weekend to resolve their differences in a state spending plan of around $70 billion dollars.  Alexander has said there is a razor-thin chance that lawmakers could finish their work by the scheduled March 9th end of the legislative session.  A budget agreement must be reached by Tuesday.  That’s because state law requires the spending plan be delivered to lawmakers 72 hours before a vote can be taken.