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As the Florida House and Senate firm up budget plans today, the horse-trading can commence

With their budget plans $547 million apart, the House and Senate today will debate and amend their spending plans for hours. They're likely to approve their plans Friday.

Expect the Senate to be far more efficient and cordial than the House.

The Senate plan has more bipartisan support and includes more revenue from gambling and cigarette taxes. The House plan has more Democratic opposition and no cigarette tax money — making it a linchpin of the entire budget for next year and therefore the session.

"The Senate feels pretty strongly about the tobacco surcharge. We're willing to be here till whenever," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven.

One of the House budget chiefs, Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera, wouldn't say whether his chamber would eventually debate the tobacco tax.

"I would never prejudge the process," Rivera said.

The tax could raise up to $900 million annually. Expect that number to drop because Miami and Tampa Bay legislators want to exempt hand-rolled cigars from the tax. Miami Rep. Juan Zapata said he expects his fellow House Republicans, who are balking at the tax, to eventually take it up.

"We need the money," Zapata said.

Senators point out that the House budget raids what they believe is an unrealistic amount of money — $926 million — from special spending accounts called "trust funds."

The most notable trust fund raids: $175 million from a fund that helps clean up leaky fuel tanks that can poison groundwater and $420 million from a transportation fund — a raid that could slow down some construction projects at the very time that legislators are trying to spur growth.

Since the House trust fund raids are worth about as much as the Senate's tobacco-tax plan, senators say they hope that the lower chamber might be willing to swap out the trust find raids for the tax.

If the House backs off its trust fund raids, the Senate will likely have to make deeper spending cuts in order to make the bottom lines of the budgets match. Once they do, lawmakers can meet as early as Saturday to make the budgets identical in order to finish the legislative session on time, May 1.

Other issues to work out: The House cuts state worker salaries and higher education much more deeply than the Senate. And the Senate's health care budget is about $244 million smaller than the House's.

But first, legislators will fight out every aspect of the budget — particularly in the House. Democrats want to strip out language Rivera inserted that would ban higher-education institutions from spending state money on embryonic stem-cell research. Rep. Zapata wants to force Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami to bid on $12 million in refugee-assistance money. And Democrats are ready to make a big deal of education cuts and the fact that the Democrat-passed stimulus money props up the budget.

In the leadup to the budget debate, Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, ran a training session along with Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, for their less-experienced colleagues. They said the point of their budget floor amendments is to score political points, because Democrats lack the votes to prevail.

"Don't ask a question that you don't know the answer to," Saunders told the group. "We're asking questions to make points."

As the Florida House and Senate firm up budget plans today, the horse-trading can commence 04/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:37pm]
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