Pronouncing progress, Crisafulli says behind scenes budget talks still ongoing
In an email to House members Thursday, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, announced that behind-the-scenes negotiations continue on one of the most pivotal policy questions of the Legislative session -- how much of the $80 billion budget should be allocated for tax cuts and how much for spending -- and announced that conference committee meetings will not happen this weekend.
"There is positive forward progress in the effort to reach an agreement on budget allocations with the Senate,'' Crisafulli said in the email. "However, there is still a great deal to be worked out. Therefore, we will not begin conference this weekend. It is my hope that we will begin conference early next week. I hope you enjoy your weekend."
The decision is pivotal to the ability of House and Senate leaders to work out their differences over the budget and avoid a showdown like last year's that led them into special session.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, the incoming Senate president and a budget subcommittee chairman, told reporters after he spoke with Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday that "the issue is how much and what options are best for a tax relief package" but those would be decisions "that will be made by Chairman Lee and President Gardiner."
The Senate has rejected the governor's plan to make a $1 billion permanent cut in the state's revenue base which involves recurring tax cuts, while the House has recognized similar concerns but has passed a $1 billion tax cut bill but limits the cuts to recurring revenue to less than $400 million.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, told the Herald/Times that he continues to have extensive private discussions with his House counterpart, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.
Lee said the two men are still trying to find common ground on the amount and types of tax cuts, possible use of Deepwater Horizon settlement money, and whether the House will agree to the Senate plan to use state tax revenue to reduce reliance on property taxes to pay for a boost in public school spending.
"It's hard to get into the expense side of your budget until you've identified the actual revenue," Lee said.
Lee said he and Corcoran still dine privately together at a Tallahassee restaurant over wine and cigars at least once a week.
While both Lee and Corcoran have vowed to bring the budget decisions into the sunlight after last year's session ended with more than $300 million in projects injected into the budget after behind closed door negotiations. But neither has shown a willingness to bring the crucial negotiations over how much to allocate to key projects into the open.
Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, last week blasted Senate leaders for rejecting his budget amendment that would have restored $222.5 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program that has been left threadbare since the Great Recession. The Senate leadership argued that the amendment was "out of order" because it would have left the Senate's proposed budget out of balance.
"It sheds light on a huge, huge issue,'' Altman told reporters. "It's the fact that allocations are done completely out of the sunshine, privately done and nobody even knows who does them in this back room and the public has no say...I think we should call for allocations to be done in public, they should be voted on. There should be debate. People should have a right to give input."
Lee denied that the allocation decisions are made out of the sunshine.
"They're not. They're just not,'' he told the Herald/Times. "We here in the Senate give our chair people not the just title and not just the responsibility but we given them the authority and so we have dialogue back and forth, priorities shift and we don't tell them what to do."
He acknowledged it is not a discussion that is always an open debate.
"You see it when their subcommittee budget rolls out. They make that decision as chair people. I don't make that decision for them,'' he said. "Some [budget] chairs have a discussion about how everybody feels about life in the committee. Others have private conversations with members of the committee...but ultimately the subcommittee's chairman's responsibility is to roll out a budget tha reflects the composite of his committee. We don't tell them how to do that."