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Budget negotiations continue as close of session nears

With just a week remaining in the 2012 Florida legislative session, hundreds of issues remain unresolved. James Call reports joint conference committees are working to blend House and Senate proposed state budgets into one spending plan.

 

Once lawmakers go to conference the day begins with committee meetings. Counter-offers bounce like tennis balls between the House and Senate while lobbyists and reporters watch the negotiations. Blink, and one can quickly lose track of where the talks are. Here, House Higher Education chair, Villages Representative Marlene O’Toole interrupts presentation of a House offer when a throng of spectators lunged for spreadsheets detailing her latest proposal.

“Alice you are recognized….Oops. Got to wait a minute because they are giving out free money up front.”

The spreadsheets list the projects the state spends money on and provides a chronology of House and Senate offers. The legislature is closing a $1.4 billion shortfall with spending cuts. House and Senate leaders have agreed on how much to spend on each category, like transportation and education. Now they are working through each line item. Kissimmee Representative Mike Horner is leading the House negotiations on economic development and transportation.

“Line 243, we have come to the Senate position. We’ve got a modified version of the Senate’s position on 239. I know that was the governor’s recommended position was 1.4, we have just rounded up to 1.5...”

The various conference committees have until the end of Friday to resolve their differences. Lawmakers have agreement on an overall state spending plan of nearly $71 billion dollars. Now they are debating which pot of money should pay for which line item.  Here, Horner explains the spreadsheet he offered to his Senate counterpart.

“The numbers are the same. Let’s take, hmmmm, nice good example. Let’s take the International World Regatta Sports Festival, okay. We both got a million dollars there. Right. They have a million dollars out of SEED Trust Fund. We have a million dollars out of nonrecurring revenue. What we are suggesting we will take it out of SEED. And where we will get it is we will take this line which is line 29. You see with this line you got a lot of both sources of revenue.”

 One of the bigger issues the Transportation Economic Development Conference Committee needs to resolve is how to include road building money in an economic incentives package to attract companies to Florida. The Senate wants the Department of Transportation to control the account. The House wants to give it to the Department of Economic Opportunity.

“We’re putting all the road building funds where they have always been, under economic affairs, where in the Senate conforming bill you put in DOT.  Where not sure we want to do that at this point but clearly the decision hasn’t been made.”

The pot of money Horner is discussing is part of an economic initiative sought by Governor Rick Scott. He had asked for $230 million in incentives. The Senate countered with $106 million and the House offer comes in at $94 million. Fort Myers Senator Lizbeth Benacquisto is the Senate’s lead negotiator on transportation economic development. This was her response to Horner’s nine minute presentation:

“We’re going to look to bring you over to the Senate’s position on a couple of more things.  But uh we’ll have another offer to come back with you till, just not sure at what time today that will be given our Senate workload, but we’ll stay in touch.”

The committee was tentatively scheduled to meet again Thursday night. If it cannot reach agreement on all items by the end of business Friday then its budget will be bumped up to the chairs of the Senate Budget Committee and the House Appropriations Committee. A proposed state budget needs to be delivered to lawmakers some time Tuesday for the Legislature to adjourn on time, Friday March 9th.