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Florida budget begins to take shape

TALLAHASSEE — Breaking a week of gridlock, the leaders of the Legislature announced Tuesday that they finally have a broad agreement on tax increases and a balanced budget.

Though the details still need to be worked out, the budget deal all but guarantees that smokers will pay $1 more a pack, gamblers will get to play more poker, drivers will be stuck with higher license fees and hunters will have to shell out more on licenses to shoot deer, ducks and turkeys.

All those tax and fee increases come on top of $5 billion in federal stimulus money lawmakers are plowing into the proposed state budget, which had a deficit of more than $6 billion.

Just a few years ago, it would have been inconceivable that the conservative House would consider higher taxes and more gambling. Now the House is embracing them.

"It's certainly significant," said the House's lead budget negotiator, Dean Cannon, who calls the tax hikes "fees," "revenues'' or "surcharges."

"It is certainly unprecedented that we have this combination of an economic downtown, a Republican-dominated Legislature willing to consider revenues like the tobacco surcharge and the complexity of the federal stimulus," Cannon said.

As is the norm, Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul privately agreed on a bottom-line number for next year's budget of more than $65 billion. Their agreement capped days of sometimes acrimonious talks between Cannon and Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.

Since they reached agreement so late in the legislative session, Atwater and Cretul said the Legislature couldn't finish the 60-day session on time Friday. They plan to extend the session by a week. The final budget will likely be printed by Tuesday.

Atwater, echoing Cretul, cautioned lawmakers to "be very thoughtful and careful'' in their conversations about the budget, to ensure that they discuss public business in the sunshine. He also issued a rare request to refrain from slipping in new budget language that hadn't been discussed in public — a nod to the fact that former House Speaker Ray Sansom was indicted two weeks ago over alleged misconduct in handling the budget.

"This this is a very, very open process," Atwater said.

Still, the details of his agreement with Cretul didn't become public until much later in the day, when budget negotiators met publicly for the first time all session in joint conference committees composed of legislators from both chambers.

Under the budget agreement, the House and Senate agreed to take $100 million from a transportation trust fund, trim about $30 million from employee salaries, exempt cigars from the cigarette tax proposal and trim higher education by about $100 million more.

In all, the plan calls for the state to sock away about $1.7 billion in savings. It also raises $930 million in tobacco taxes, $800 million in fees and fines, and $600 million in raids on savings accounts called trust funds. A raid on a transportation trust fund could endanger some existing projects, such as a Central Florida commuter rail, called SunRail.

The budget committees will have to hammer out final details of the bottom-line agreements, determining what programs to cut, which to fund, what fees to raise and what type of worker pay cuts to impose.

This year, in addition to the budget conference committees, House and Senate members will also meet to reconcile differences in their proposed gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and with parimutuels.

Atwater said "there's no predestined'' outcome for the gambling deal. "There's going to be a lot of dialogue in that conference," he said.

At stake: $360 million to $500 million in potential revenue. The Senate wants more gaming, the House less.

One major aspect of the budget is about the same in both chambers: per student K-12 spending.

Far greater differences remain. Legislators will have to resolve hundreds of areas of disagreement both small and large that affect the lives of every Floridian, including:

Nursing homes. The House proposes a 2.5 percent Medicaid-reimbursement rate cut and a freeze on increasing the average number of hours a nurse spends with a resident. The Senate proposes a 3 percent rate cut on nursing homes and all other Medicaid providers, such as hospitals.

Privatization. The Senate wants to privatize Suwanee Correctional Institute. The House doesn't. The House wants to privatize the Northeast Florida State Hospital. The Senate doesn't.

Fishing fees. The House and Senate both levy first-time shoreline fishing license fees of $15.50, though the House exempts cane-pole fishermen.

Scholarships. The House spends about $5.1 million for prepaid scholarships — $1 million more than the Senate. And the House spends $84.2 million for private school scholarships, almost $5 million more than the Senate's proposal.

Higher education remains a significant difference, with the House spending $200 million less on community colleges.

But Sen. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican who heads the higher education budget committee, said she hoped for a resolution. Lynn told her House counterparts to come back this morning with a more generous offer.

"When you come back to us (today), make sure it's for a big, fat chunk of money," Lynn said.

Herald/Times staff writers Breanne Gilpatrick, Patricia Mazzei, Amy Hollyfield, Steve Bousquet and Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

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Florida budget begins to take shape 04/28/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 30, 2009 3:13pm]

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