Florida's budget issues are unresolved as deadline nears

Florida's budget issues are unresolved as deadline nears
Photo by Pictures of Money via Flickr
Florida's Senate president and House speaker stepped in Sunday afternoon to take over budget negotiations, with several issues still in play as lawmakers race a Tuesday deadline to finish work on a nearly $83 billion spending plan.

Talks over the weekend between Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, led to agreements on spending levels for public education, higher education and $40 million in water projects. But every other area of the budget was at least partially unresolved.

Those ranged from minor issues in an area of the budget dealing with basic government operations to discussions in health care about how to structure a $651 million cut in Medicaid payments to hospitals. Also unresolved was essentially the entire environmental budget outside of the water projects.

And while the dollars for public education have been decided, bills determining the shape of plans to encourage charter schools to open branches near struggling traditional schools, and an initiative to expand a teacher bonus program, haven't been finished.

Because of a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off" period, a final deal on the budget has to be struck by Tuesday for the legislative session to end Friday, as scheduled. Some of the policy issues, like on education, could be finished later in the week.

In reality, the budget discussions themselves are part of an intricate maneuver to bring the session to a close. Other issues, like an expansion of the homestead property-tax exemption favored by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, will also play a role.

Moving most of the budget issues to Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, fueled complaints that the spending negotiations this year have been more opaque than in recent years.

"I think the process of kicking everything up is not transparent at all," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Some lawmakers seemed to be unsure whether the remaining budget items would be negotiated in public or behind closed doors before a spokeswoman for Negron said that offers between the two chambers would be exchanged in an open meeting.

But even what would be a part of the budget was still changing. Latvala and the Senate announced Sunday they were removing pay raises for state employees from the budget and would instead place them in a bill making changes to the state's retirement system and health-insurance program.

That bill is scheduled to be heard Monday by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Latvala, who has made a salary increase for state workers his top priority, told reporters he was making the move "for protection."

"The House wanted the pension reform and the insurance reform in return for the pay raise," he said. "So we're putting it all in one place so it either all moves along or it all goes down the tubes."

The Senate plan would boost pay across the board by $1,400 a year for employees making $40,000 or less, and by $1,000 a year for employees making more. Some employees in particular jobs would get extra increases.

The proposal is similar to an increase approved by the Legislature in 2013, the last time state employees got a raise.

The Senate appeared to push back a House plan to slash 44 positions from the office of Gov. Rick Scott. Trujillo said Sunday afternoon that those cuts were "off the table, for the most part."

But Scott, who has been rebuffed on funding for economic development incentives and tourism marketing, remains a wild card in the unwinding of the budget process.

"In our initial budget there'll be some things he'll like. And then there'll be some things he doesn't like," Latvala said Sunday morning, before adding cryptically: "And then we'll probably have the chance to correct those that he doesn't like."

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