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Can Florida Senate, House agree on a budget before the session ends?

TALLAHASSEE — With their resistance weakening against raising taxes and expanding gambling, the Florida House voted on its budget Friday and lurched forward into battle with the Senate over raising cigarette taxes.

After nearly 18 hours of debate over two days, the House passed its $65.1 billion budget on a 74-45 party-line vote, with one exception — Rep. Marti Coley, a Marianna Republican who voted with Democrats in opposition.

Unlike the Senate's budget, the House budget raises fees by $1 billion, cuts the pay of state workers, university and community college personnel by $300 million, slashes $460 million more out of higher education and spends a total of $547 million less than the Senate.

But it doesn't raise taxes. And it doesn't rely on expanded gambling.

The Senate's budget does, increasing the state tax on cigarettes from 34 cents per pack to $1.34 and imposing a $1 per ounce fee on cigars and smokeless tobacco. It also counts on more than $500 million in new gambling revenue by giving expanded gambling to both the Seminole Indian casinos and to horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons across the state.

House and Senate leaders have given themselves until Monday to agree on a bottom line for new revenue and spending. Legislators must agree on the budget numbers so that negotiations can be completed by April 26, in time to adjourn on May 1.

Absent that, the stalemate may send lawmakers into overtime.

"If they get past Monday and we can't get started, we will really be in a crisis," said Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven.

House leaders have firmly resisted the cigarette tax and, until this week, rejected any increase in gambling. But this week the House approved a bill to revive racing at Hialeah race track.

The measure is far reaching. It opens the door to the creation of at least three new race tracks for quarter horse racing, including two in Ocala, hometown of House Speaker Larry Cretul. The bill lowers the tax rate for South Florida racinos that offer slot machines and racing, and it gives all other parimutuels in the state the opportunity to operate slot-machine-style video terminals that allow customers to bet on replays of horse races.

The House also softened its resistance to taxes last week, when it proposed a bill to permanently eliminate $29 million worth of sales tax exemptions in exchange for a one-time only sales tax holiday this year.

Gov. Charlie Crist stopped by the House chamber during Friday's lengthy debate and came away repeating his claim that he prefers the House approach to balancing the budget without the Senate's $1 billion hike in tobacco taxes.

Senate leaders, however, have said they will not back off the cigarette tax because they believe it is essential to maintaining services. They warned that if they have to stay into the summer in overtime legislative sessions, they will.

"Tallahassee's a beautiful place all year round," Crist replied, adding that he doesn't think the session will go into overtime.

Crist's deputies have suggested that the Seminole Tribe of Florida may be willing to loan the state as much as $800 million in up front cash as part of its gambling agreement with the state. The governor said that is "perhaps'' an option he has offered lawmakers to avoid the cigarette tax.

"This is now when it starts to get really interesting," Crist said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Can Florida Senate, House agree on a budget before the session ends? 04/17/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 17, 2009 8:30pm]
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