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State lawmakers struggle to make budget deal as session clock ticks

State House budget chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Senate budget chairman JD Alexander pause during talks Sunday night to reach a budget agreement in Tallahassee.

SCOTT KEELER | Times

State House budget chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Senate budget chairman JD Alexander pause during talks Sunday night to reach a budget agreement in Tallahassee.

TALLAHASSEE — Racing against the clock, legislators labored Sunday to settle spending differences and agree on a $70 billion budget with five days left in the session.

They made progress in all-day talks that ended at 8 p.m., but today will be another marathon day as lawmakers left some of the most contentious issues to the final hours. They include how much money to spend on public schools, whether to take $300 million from universities' reserves and whether the House will go along with the Senate in making Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland the state's 12th university.

For the 60-day session to end on time Friday, a final budget must be agreed upon and printed by Tuesday. To balance the budget, lawmakers are considering taking $300 million from universities' reserve accounts.

"The reserve issue is problematic," said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a Florida State graduate who is protective of FSU in the budget. "A lot of schools thought they were doing the right thing by saving money, but they can be hit the hardest."

Budget negotiators did agree on the size of cuts to hospitals, nursing homes and mental health programs.

Hospital reimbursements will be cut by 5.64 percent, except for rural and children's hospitals, which will be spared that cut. The hospitals' rate cut was 7.5 percent, but lawmakers reduced the impact with an infusion of one-time money.

"The hospitals of Florida have had a very good evening," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

In a Capitol hearing room packed with lobbyists, the House and Senate swapped budget offers and some community projects made the cut. Senators agreed to the House offer to give Pasco County $1 million for a local initiative targeting prescription drug abuse, and $700,000 more to the Pasco Sheriff's Office to investigate complaints of child abuse. Both Pasco projects will be funded with one-time money, which means they are one-year projects.

Lawmakers also spent $2 million for real-time signage on Florida interstate highways to warn motorists of crashes and problems, in the wake of devastating crashes on Interstate-75 near Gainesville.

Following questions by Democrats, lawmakers removed budget language that would have allowed the Department of Corrections to move money between budget categories "for outsourcing efforts."

In the most divisive vote of the 2012 session, the Senate voted 21-19 to reject a proposed privatization of all prisons in 18 South Florida counties. Some anti-privatization lawmakers and lobbyists were on high alert for a possible last-minute maneuver to keep privatization alive, but it didn't happen.

Republicans said they were not giving the prison system authority to expand privatization, and when Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston asked why the language was needed, Republicans quickly eliminated it.

"The budget is really pretty thin on cash," said Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. "I don't think anybody's quite satisfied, but I think we're making good progress on a budget that will work for Florida."

Most rank-and-file state workers will not receive a pay increase for the sixth year in a row.

State lawmakers struggle to make budget deal as session clock ticks 03/04/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 4, 2012 10:42pm]
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