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Away from prying eyes, Florida's legislators work on compromise budget

TALLAHASSEE — A grand jury report bashing the Legislature for secretiveness in the budget process hasn't changed political business in the state Capitol.

High-level talks continued Tuesday — behind closed doors, by phone and out of the sunshine — as legislative leaders and their staffs traded offers to settle bottom-line differences between the two chambers' proposed state budgets, which remain about $547 million apart.

At the center of the talks: a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and $1-a-pack cigarette tax hike that the formerly antitax House appears ready to accept.

But the House wants something from the Senate in exchange: bigger cuts to higher education, state worker pay and a transportation fund.

Senate President Jeff Atwater called the proposed House cuts destructive in an interview with the Times/Herald. He said the proposed reductions would cost jobs and hurt higher education and state workers.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, in turn, broke days of silence, saying from the dais that he felt the Senate plan wasn't prudent because it didn't sock away enough savings.

What do the two say privately about the budget and a host of other major pieces of legislation? Few people know. And Republican legislative leaders want to keep it that way.

Echoing others, Miami Republican Rep. David Rivera, a House budget leader, said the leaders need to negotiate a broad bottom line before lawmakers from both chambers meet in conference committees to work out the fine details. He said there's little mystery in the budget process.

"If people were to see it firsthand — there's a lot of give and take," Rivera said. "It's very open, very accessible."

But not for the public. Not for the news media. Not even for some state representatives.

St. Petersburg Rep. Darryl Rouson, a freshman Democrat, showed up at Cretul's office Sunday and asked staffers if he could sit in on budget meetings. He was told he couldn't.

"It reminds me very painfully of 'to the victor go the spoils,' " Rouson said. "I'm extremely concerned about the process."

This year, budget talks are thornier than ever because of multiple pressures: sagging tax collections, federal stimulus money that will run out after two years, budget cuts, a governor who many say remains on the sidelines and pressure from antitax groups to cut more, coupled with pressure by school, health and construction advocates to spend more.

And then there's the legacy of Rep. Ray Sansom, the Destin Republican who resigned as speaker of the Florida House while under investigation over alleged manipulations of the budget process.

Before he quit his post, Sansom weakened the position of the House budget chairman by dividing the duties between Rivera and Marcelo Llorente, also a Miami Republican.

Sansom was indicted Friday along with a Panhandle college president on a felony charge stemming from a $6 million state-funded airport building. It was designed to benefit a Sansom political ally and major Republican donor, the grand jury said.

The indictment shocked the Capitol. Many believe that what Sansom did — bringing home the bacon — was the right and duty of a legislative leader.

The grand jury, however, said the process "allows taxpayer money to be budgeted for special purposes by those few legislators who happen to be in a position of power."

The Senate's budget chief, J.D. Alexander of Winter Haven, took issue with the report. He said private discussions are needed.

"It would be virtually impossible to come to resolution if we did all this in public," Alexander said. "It would become so politicized that you couldn't work through very challenging issues."

Alexander said the next few days are crucial. If the leaders can't agree on allocations and the budget isn't printed by Tuesday, there's a strong likelihood that lawmakers won't finish by May 1. They could work overtime or convene a special session before the budget year begins July 1.

As the House engaged in a four-hour floor session Tuesday, Reps. Dean Cannon and Will Weatherford — Republicans set to take over as speaker in 2010 and 2012, respectively — left the chamber for long stretches as budget negotiations ground on privately.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@miamiherald.com.

Away from prying eyes, Florida's legislators work on compromise budget 04/21/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 24, 2009 11:13am]
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