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Rough start and tense words mark start of budget talks

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – The Florida House and Senate are in conference. They have agreement on the broad outline of a state spending plan and will flesh out the details between now and the end of business Friday. James Call reports, the plan they are working on appears to leave out most of the nearly 2 billion dollars in tax cuts pushed by Governor Rick Scott.

Wednesday morning, with about 200 people watching, the Florida House and Senate began talking about how to cut state spending by $4 billion.

"Excuse me senator--"
"--What I consider the highlights but we'll open it up for questioning--"
"--Could you repeat that last line item?"

"It's line 269 of the senate offer."

Senator Joe Negron leads a delegation negotiating cuts in the Health Human Services budget with the House.

"The expansion of PACE, we went to the House's position, funding about 225 new slots, 75 in Pinellas, 55 in Hillsborough..."

The House delegation is led by Represntative Matt Hudson.

"It looks like you guys have done an awful lot of work, hmmm. Appreciate you bringing it to us this morning and we'll get to work getting this done in a timely fashion. My time will go back and we will take a good hard look at it. And we'll bring back an offer to you at 12:30 today if that is acceptable."
Okay. Hmmmm..."

When the two sides got back together, the House rejected most of the Senate's offer. It is holding out against cuts to the Medically Needy and Medicaid's Aged and Disabled programs. Florida lawmakers are crafting a state spending plan without imposing any tax and fee increases. There are cuts in almost every service government provides. The House and Senate must reach agreement by May 3rd in order to comply with a 72-hour cooling off period, before voting on a budget on May 6th, the scheduled end of session. The pace is fast. Information is scarce and tension is high.

"Any documents I have you're welcome to, that's always been my policy."
"The problem is, when you go to the Documents room in the Senate's side--"

"Well, I don't work in the documents room--"
"No, you don't but--"

"Hey, let's be cool..."

Exchanges like this between reporters and lawmakers and sometimes among lawmakers themselves are not unusual when the budget is in conference. A "no new tax" pledge means billions of dollars will be cut from programs for the sick, school children and public safety. Senator Alan Hays said lawmakers have until Friday to identify the cuts on which they can't come to an agreement. Hays chairs the government appropriations conference committee and said any issue that remains unresolved at the end of business Friday will be bumped up to the Senate President and Speaker.

"These cuts are unprecedented in the history of Florida, as far as I know. And every cut we make is affecting somebody's life. Whether it be a state employee who is trying to feed his family, or whether it be somebody out there that is, working through the projects in the environmental area or researching in agriculture everything that we do is affecting the lives of people and we got to take it very seriously but it is just something that has to be done."

One thing that lawmakers appear to be balking at doing is passing a corporate income tax cut the Governor wants. Scott campaign on eliminating the tax and proposed a cut this year that would cost about 400 million dollars. Neither chamber currently has it in their plans and Representative Will Weatherford said it will be very challenging to find the money to give Scott what he wants.

"We don't have the opportunity like Washington does to pass a tax cut and not pay for it and just create a larger deficit. We have to pay for tax cuts we make. So while we look for every where possible to reduce the burden and regulation off our citizens we also have to be realistic that we have a four-billion dollar shortfall and we must sure we fund the essential services of the state like education and health care."

About three- billion dollars separated the House and Senate at the beginning of negotiations. They are working on a budget that will spend at least 66.5 billion dollars in a year that begins July first.