Budget meltdown? Conference cancelled all weekend.
One of the first rules of going into conference is make sure everyone's on the same page when it comes to the bottom line. But it looks like lawmakers decided to call budget conferences this weekend even though the House and Senate are about $880m apart when it comes to using Medicaid money and they're about $500m apart over transportation.
If you can't figure your allocations for each section of the budget, you can't really meet to square the numbers.
Sen. Mike Fasano said Senate President Jeff Atwater called him and said the 10 am get-to-know-you conference is cancelled. And there might not be conference all weekend.
"I don't have specifics and the president wasn't specific, either," Fasano said.
If conference doesn't happen this weekend, it makes an on-time finish less and less likely. That makes embarrassment more and more likely for Republican lawmakers who run the Legislature but just can't seem to balance their own budget, despite billions in stimulus money from Congress.
At one point, it looked guaranteed that hundreds of millions more in Medicaid money would flow from Democrats in Congress. So Gov. Charlie Crist plugged the money in his proposed budget. The Senate provisionally plugged the money in as well. The House didn't and won't. Looks like the House was right, so far. There's not much movement on Capitol Hill to spend more money because Republicans up there are in hell-no mode when it comes to more social-services spending, despite the please-sir-can-I-have-some-more Republicans in the state Capitol. And it looks like the Republican assault has finally worn down the Democrats who run Congress.
Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Atwater, who sure would like to hit the campaign trail to run for state CFO, suggested he's ready to go the House position and "make more reductions." But, he said, he didn't think it was necessary. Yet.
House Speaker Larry Cretul said earlier in the week that he wanted the Senate to give him a list of exactly what programs would face cuts if the new Medicaid money never arrived. Apparently, he never got the list or he didn't like what he saw.
Atwater and Cretul last year insisted on providing a new, heightened level of transparency in budget talks. But they kept negotiations over allocations secret. And that's a good deal of the ball game when it comes to budgeting. After all, deciding just how much the state can spend, say, on health or economic development is a major policy decision. It's the Golden Rule: he who has the gold rules. Allocations look like they're behind discussed behind closed doors. Again.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander yesterday defended some of the secrecy. "It's better than what they do in Congress," he said. Way to set the bar nice and low, senator. Getting any meaningful response out of House budget chief David Rivera is akin to squeezing blood out of a rock. Rivera is running for Congress, a fact that could affect the dynamics of budget talks. Last year, he was running for state Senate, so he would have had more incentive to play ball with Alexander (that's one reason Rivera didn't lead allocation talks). Now, he's a freelancer who doesn't need to appease future colleagues.
House spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin discounted (but didn't rule out the possibility) talk of a session that doesn't end on time. "That will be a tactic some use to inspire fear and terror," she said.-- Marc Caputo