TALLAHASSEE — Negotiations on a new state budget picked up steam Monday as legislators sought common ground in hopes of bringing the 2010 session to a smooth conclusion late next week.
Talks temporarily collapsed over the weekend when the House and Senate could not make a fundamental decision on how much general tax revenue to allocate to specific budget areas, but they reached a compromise Monday.
That allowed negotiations to proceed later than usual, and left enough time to finalize a budget by April 27 and end the session by April 30.
To get the talks off dead center, the House agreed to plug in $880 million from an anticipated congressional extension of a federal Medicaid stimulus program on the condition that most of the money be set aside for savings. Gov. Charlie Crist and the Senate provisionally spent that money on an array of human services, but Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, accepted the House's position to spend only $115 million.
"From the very get-go, their position has been we're not going to apply it," Atwater said of the House. "That's what we're looking to do."
Democrats were dismayed by the Senate's acquiescence, because it may short-change vital human services. "It was a little disconcerting that the House won that fight so quickly," Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, said.
Over the next several days, lawmakers still must resolve differences on a wide range of spending issues, from aiding public libraries to raiding a popular road-building fund to reducing pension benefits for current and retired public employees.
The House may yet move toward the Senate's original health budget, which could mean tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars in social services cuts.
In the annual give-and-take over spending, the House backed off its plan to shift nearly $300 million from highway construction to other programs, reducing the proposed raid to $160 million. That's still too much for the Florida Transportation Builders' Association, which called the shift "a devastating blow to an already strained industry" that could mean the loss of 11,000 jobs.
"We've agreed reluctantly to do some reductions in the transportation trust fund," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
House budget chief David Rivera, R-Miami, said no current projects would be disrupted. Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Kopelousos said the effect on the department's five-year work plan won't be known until a revised priority list of construction projects is determined through discussions with local boards that help rank projects.
In an election year, legislators have ruled out any major tax or fee increases. Only an infusion of nearly half a billion dollars in Seminole gambling money and billions in federal economic stimulus money will allow lawmakers to patch together a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Without the gambling and stimulus money, "it would certainly be a greater stress on the budget. We would have had to have done more reductions. No questions about that," Atwater said.
The budget that's rounding into shape could result in a marginal increase in per-pupil spending, even as the property tax rate for public education is reduced, a development that would have not been possible in a no-new-taxes budget without the flow of gambling and stimulus money.
"I don't think you'll see a budget come out of here that doesn't hold K-12 harmless," Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel said. "That's the top priority for us."
Despite promising greater openness in budget dealings, the House took the extraordinary step of posting guards between the public and lawmakers at an evening meeting of health-budget conferees to keep reporters and lobbyists from speaking to legislators.
Out of earshot, legislators huddled in private to discuss respective budget offers. The sergeant at arms, Ron Runge, grabbed a reporter and physically pushed him from the committee's raised platform.
House spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said the committee was in recess at the time although the meeting was still going on.
"There was an unfortunate lack of communication," she said.
The budget talks are progressing at a time of growing discontent between lawmakers and Crist, who has the final say on the budget and can veto line items and budgetary language known as proviso that directs how money must be spent.
Some legislators, still peeved over Crist's veto of a teacher merit pay bill on Thursday, now have a new reason to complain about him: At a weekend Senate campaign stop in Jacksonville, the Republican governor likened the Republican-controlled Legislature to an asylum.
"That choice of words was very poor," said Atwater, a candidate for chief financial officer. "But we've all been in those moments, and I'll just give him the benefit of the doubt."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, John Frank and Lee Logan contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.