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Budget talks stall-- lawmakers look to an extended session

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-963641.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida House and Senate have passed different versions of a state budget bill with different bottom lines and different amounts for various areas of state spending. The two chambers have entered an unofficial cooling off period and are expected to begin negotiations after the Easter/Passover break. James Call tells us lawmakers are raising the possibility of an extended Legislative Session.

Friday Hallandale Beach Representative Joe Gibbons expressed the comment of many veteran capitol observers about the fast-pace of the 2011 Legislative Session. In the first five weeks lawmakers agreed to eliminate teacher tenure, mandate public employees pay into their pensions, cap Medicaid spending and cut the education budget.

"When in a session do you have major policy decisions every week for the first five weeks. Never seen anything like that before."

Then in week six, when it came time for the House and Senate to talk budget what had appeared to be a well-oiled Republican Super Majority political machine sputtered and went on break. Budget talks have been delayed until after April25th. The chambers differ on how much to cut from education spending and in benefits for public employees.

"This is the most difficult budget situation, challenge, crisis that anyone can remember in the Florida Legislature."

Senator Don Gaetz said it is not one or two issues that lawmakers need to resolve. He said it's four-billion. As in the four-billion dollar budget shortfall that the Legislature will close with spending cuts.

"And it's really tough to zero in on where these cuts ought to be made. Both the Senate and the House have adopted budget positions and now we have to get down to negotiating the differences. Just like in a business or a family when there are serious differences about what do we do because you have less money you need to measure twice and cut once."

Budget writers will spend the week re-checking how much money will be saved by requiring public employees to pay into a pension fund. The Senate says its 1 point one billion. The House, 710 million. The chambers also have different numbers on education spending and Medicaid and in how much money to sweep from different trust funds. Also, Senate Budget Chief J.D. Alexander continues his push for more transparency in government by including water management district spending in the state budget. Everyone seems to agree that is a big agenda for the two weeks lawmakers will have to finish their work when they return from break.

"Well we always have those sort of concerns and is the reason why my phone is on 24 hours a day."

Senator J.D. Alexander says he's looking for a dance partner to set allocations and begin budget negotiations.

"We are willing to stay and as late as is needed to get the job done. We are not interested in demagoguery and not finding common ground. But it takes two to dance and all of the concessions can't come from the senate we have to have common ground on both sides and we look forward to doing that and hopefully we'll get to that soon."

Representative Gibbons is a Democrat in a Republican controlled Legislature and thinks the quick flurry of activity in the session's first half has placed the majority party in a box. That is, the Legislature implemented major policy changes and now that it is time to pay for the changes there is not enough money, someone something has to give.

"We all know that education and health care take up two thirds of the budget. And there has to be some give somewhere, and what's it going to be? Education? or is it going to be more on health care? All right. That budget expresses a philosophy that they policy we set in the early week that they want the state to go the problem is the Senate and House don't match up there is about a three- billion dollar difference so that's where whose policies are where."

When Alexander announced that there would be a week delay in budget talks, the House Speaker told Representatives to be prepared to be in Tallahassee an extra week after the sessions' scheduled end.