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For Florida GOP, state budget gridlock raises peril

TALLAHASSEE — At a white cloth-covered table dotted with glasses of orange juice, Republican legislative leaders proudly toasted the on-time end of a lawmaking session, a no-new-taxes budget and the ascendancy of the GOP in Florida.

That was a dozen years ago. Today, the sense of optimism that buoyed the state's Republicans has begun to crumble as legislative leaders struggle in a nearly deadlocked session to meet their constitutional duty to craft a balanced state budget.

Legislators likely won't finish a budget by the session's end on Friday.

"Not getting done on time sends a wrong signal to the taxpayers of the state," said Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican. "It's embarrassing."

Republicans, who have dominated the Legislature since 1996, aren't just down because of budget talks. They're also confronting other issues that make them wince. They're raising taxes. The economic news is blotting out other topics that traditionally fire up supporters, like abortion or guns.

Fasano fondly recalled the 1997 juice-toasting ceremony when Senate President Toni Jennings and House Speaker Dan Webster were served by the last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles. The event underscored the Republicans' new businesslike approach to lawmaking — and put the final touches on a long downward spiral by Democrats.

"If we're not careful, we could end up making the same mistake the Democrats did in Florida or that Republicans did just a few years ago in Washington," Fasano said.

While many Republican senators remember the day they celebrated their party's control of the Legislature in the Capitol rotunda, no one in the House does. None of them was there.

The House is packed with freshmen and sophomore lawmakers, as term limits take their toll.

Though he supports term limits, Fasano said the logjammed budget talks are partly due to that lack of experience, coupled with an overly partisan ideology in the House. The Senate's proposed budget passed unanimously. The House's passed on party lines.

House leaders say it's the Senate that is acting like the less experienced chamber by refusing to take a long-term view. The House wants the Senate to make deeper cuts to state workers' pay, a transportation trust fund and higher education so that the state can sock away more cash for bad times — and for the day, two years from now, when federal stimulus dollars disappear.

Rep. Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who was in high school when the GOP took full control of the Legislature, dismissed any comparisons to past legislative sessions. He said the state has never been in such dire straits, and people will understand if the Legislature doesn't finish on time Friday.

"If we can't finish on time I don't think it's a function of us not working together," he said. "I think it's a function of the fact it's a very complicated issue."

Lawmakers must have a balanced budget by July 1, the start of the new state fiscal year. Many legislators expected to have broad agreement on the general ways to allocate money in the more than $65 billion budget by Tuesday. As of Friday, budget talks remained stalled.

When the budget is completed — by May 1 or during an extended or special session — a core principle of Republican campaign ideology, no new taxes, will likely be gone. The Senate wants a cigarette tax, and the House is raising taxes on motor vehicle tags.

Republicans in both chambers have stopped bashing President Barack Obama's stimulus package and are fortifying the next budget with about $5 billion from Washington. Despite the extra cash, lawmakers are struggling with balancing the budget.

The Senate wants to accept $440 million more in unemployment compensation stimulus cash than the House, which fears it could lead to tax increases when the federal money runs out.

Legislative leaders continue to meet secretly to negotiate on their proposed budgets, which are about $550 million apart.

As the two chambers gridlocked last week, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist was largely absent. He said he has spoken with House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater and is "encouraging their continued dialogue."

But what is he telling them? "Do the right thing," Crist said.

For Democrats, Crist's 2006 election coincided with their own gains in the Florida House and winning a Cabinet-level post.

In the end, a party can only grow for so long before it starts to lose its way, said Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West.

"It's not the party. It's the power that causes the downfall," said Saunders, elected to his second stint in the House in 2006. "It's the arrogance."

Saunders should know. He was in the House from 1986 until 1994, two years before Democrats lost control of the chamber. Then, as now, one-party rule didn't ensure peace.

"There are going to be disagreements, and people understand that," said the Senate's Republican leader, Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami. "People want us to get the budget done right. And in these challenging times, we will. This isn't about the Republican Party."

Miami Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos isn't so sure. He said the gridlock seems similar to the Democrats' problems in the 1990s. "We may repeat that cycle if we don't finish on time and in the right way," he said. "This is a wakeup call for the Republican Party."

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

For Florida GOP, state budget gridlock raises peril 04/26/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 7:11am]
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