TALLAHASSEE — A squabble over spending turned tense Monday when the Florida Senate's budget chairman accused the leader of the Florida House of negotiating in bad faith and attempting to hamstring Senate President Mike Haridopolos' run for U.S. Senate.
Sen. J.D. Alexander hurled the accusations in frustration at House Speaker Dean Cannon after talks broke down over how to allocate money in different sections of the budget. At stake: more than $67 billion in spending that affects everything from school kids to criminals to the sick and elderly.
"The speaker has done everything he can to not deal with me because I know the budget well and I can figure out his gamesmanship pretty quickly," Alexander, R-Lake Wales said.
Cannon, who first clashed with Alexander two years ago over handling the budget, didn't respond and let budget chairwoman, Denise Grimsley, do the talking.
Grimsley said the hot-tempered Alexander rejected a House budget offer last week by saying "I'm going to put it in the trash."
Grimsley said his negotiating style was confusing. As the House moved closer to the Senate's budget numbers, she said, Alexander moved farther away — and he sometimes canceled what seemed like tacit agreements made by the boss of the Senate, Haridopolos.
"It seems that the president and the Senate budget chairman are not communicating. I'm not sure who's in charge," she said. "The House will not engage in a one-sided conversation that leaves us negotiating against ourselves."
Grimsley, R-Sebring, released a sheet showing how the Senate's negotiations started changing when Alexander took over talks from Haridopolos.
The dispute has political implications for Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. He's running in a crowded U.S. Senate primary and he has asked voters to judge him by his legislative record. But the budget impasse could make a May 6 finish less likely — an embarrassment in a Legislature that prides itself on wrapping up the 60-day lawmaking session on schedule.
Haridopolos would also rather hit the campaign trail than remain in an overtime session in Tallahassee.
But he said he's not worried.
"I'm very optimistic of where we're at in the discussions," Haridopolos said. "Look, I'm in no rush to get out on the campaign trail. I'm doing my job."
In a sign of a thaw, Haridopolos on Monday persuaded Alexander to offer in his committee a Supreme Court overhaul bill written by Cannon.
In the end, Haridopolos pointed out the differences between the chambers were relatively small compared to the tens of billions in spending.
There have been five offers and counteroffers between the chambers in recent weeks. Talks stalled after the last offer, from the Senate, on Thursday. Most that have flown back and forth have dealt with the bottom-line amounts of the different sections of the budget. The Senate has agreed to cut less from health care, but it still leaves the House concerned that it's gutting too much of the Medicaid program. The Senate wants to spend more on higher education, which Grimsley said can't be justified in a year when everything else faces deeper reductions.
Also, the House has balked at the Senate plan to eliminate cost-of-living increases for public-worker retirees. That's a $470 million dispute. But the Senate has agreed to increase state-worker retirement contributions by 3 percent, instead of requiring a staggered contribution-rate system that could be as high as 6 percent for highly paid state workers.
Once those allocations are agreed upon, the House and Senate can then appoint conference committees that will agree on the fine print and policies of next year's budget. The budget needs to be printed next Tuesday to ensure an on-time finish.
The allocation talks are typically secret and involve a handful of top level staffers, the two presiding officers of the chambers and their two appropriations chairs. The discussions are often infused with some hardball negotiations. Despite the fact that both chambers are controlled by Republicans, the talks can resemble tribal contests between the House and Senate. Bragging rights are on the line. Personalities clash.
Asked if he thought Cannon was trying to exploit Haridopolos and his need to hit the campaign trail, Alexander said "he's attempting to."
Alexander said Cannon appears to want to "stall, delay and try to create pressure points to move issues that are important to him." And, he said, Cannon disguises complex issues in what looked like simple offers to Haridopolos. "He pulls that kind of stunt," Alexander said.
In such an air of mistrust, misunderstandings seem inevitable. For instance, Alexander said in one budget offer that the Senate would have "no toll discounts." Grimsley figured he meant the Senate didn't want to offer SunPass buyers a toll discount. But Alexander said he was saying the issue of toll discounts was off the table and that the discounts would remain — as the House had insisted.
"It was crystal clear that 'no toll discounts' means we weren't going to do that issue," Alexander said. "Perhaps they wanted to delay and not come to terms. I don't think it's good faith to say they didn't understand it. They clearly did."