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After secret talks, Republicans end budget impasse

TALLAHASSEE — After secret talks and public acrimony, the Florida Legislature's Republican leaders announced they reached a budget deal Tuesday, sparing them the embarrassment of an overtime lawmaking session.

The deal, concerning how the bottom-line sections of the budget will shake out, still means cuts for education, health care, transportation, the criminal justice system and state worker pay and cost-of-living increases for their retirement accounts.

Also, the agreement probably means that Gov. Rick Scott won't get the big corporate income and property tax cuts he sought in his proposed budget. He wanted to eliminate the corporate income tax within seven years and cut property taxes by $1.4 billion over two years.

The accord all but guaranteed an on-time May 6 finish to the session and was of particular relief to Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, who has asked voters to judge him on his time as the leader of the upper chamber.

Haridopolos has also made open government part of his political legacy, yet he hashed out the deal with House Speaker Dean Cannon in private.

Haridopolos said legislative leaders typically discuss bottom-line budget "allocations" out of the public eye. And he saw no reason to start now.

"This is how it's always been done in Florida," Haridopolos said, promising that the fine-point negotiations "will be done in public" to decide the extent, say, of Medicaid hospital cuts, K-12 school reductions or the extent of privatization in Florida's prison system.

The public discussions will begin this morning in joint House-Senate budget committees. As for Cannon, Haridopolos said gratefully, "our friendship paid off in getting through a tough time."

The Republican goodwill was strained Monday when Haridopolos' budget chief, Sen. J.D. Alexander, teed off on Cannon for using "gamesmanship," hiding in the "shadows" and pulling a "stunt" or two in an attempt to manipulate Haridopolos' political ambitions for his own gain.

To make peace with Cannon, Haridopolos persuaded Alexander to take up the speaker's plan to ask voters to restructure the Florida Supreme Court.

Cannon wouldn't comment on Alexander, and instead let his budget director, Rep. Denise Grimsley, take on the outspoken Lake Wales Republican. She said Alexander appeared to overrule the Senate president at times and seemed to be drawing the House and Senate farther apart when they should have been closer together.

Grimsley said she wondered who ran the Senate, Alexander or Haridopolos.

Gov. Scott said he drew comfort from the fact that "the process has started." But reporters pointed out that the budget process is a week away from being complete, and Scott won't be able to deliver on his promise to cut more than $2.4 billion in taxes and fees.

"I'm confident that the right thing will happen," Scott said, "that we're going to reduce the size of government, the cost of government and we're going to make sure that we get money back into taxpayers' hands through tax reductions."

In rare public remarks as he stood by Cannon on the House floor, Haridopolos noted that lawmakers struggled to come to a preliminary deal as they faced a nearly $4 billion budget shortfall. He said lawmakers didn't raise taxes, fees or "take money out of the struggling Florida economy."

But they do. By changing state-worker retirement plans and cost-of-living adjustments, lawmakers are essentially cutting pay 3 percent — a move that could minimally affect consumer spending in a state where the state is the largest employer. Also, lawmakers are raising college tuition and they're lowering the value of state-subsidized scholarships, known as Bright Futures.

The Senate agreed to set aside about $30 million for a weeklong back-to-school sales tax break pushed by the House. But it hasn't budgeted other tax breaks, aside from business-development incentives of about $150 million — about half of what Scott wanted.

The chambers have set aside about $300 million, but not all that money will be used for tax breaks, Alexander said. Some could be used to fund schools or other legislative priorities.

Alexander suggested his outburst paid off: The House moved closer to the Senate's last offer. But the Senate also moved. He said the deal happened thanks to "the magic of the legislative process."

How did Haridopolos calm his frustrated budget chief? When asked, he wouldn't say.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Janet Zink and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.

After secret talks, Republicans end budget impasse 04/26/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 27, 2011 12:17am]

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