TALLAHASSEE — As lawmakers struggle with questions of tax increases, the state's budget and whether the legislative session will end on time, one person has emerged as a political power in the Capitol: Dean Cannon.
The future House speaker and Winter Park Republican has become the point person in secret negotiations with the state Senate's budget chief.
Since Cannon took on the role as budget negotiator two weeks ago, the House has become more insistent on raising more revenues this year and saving more money for the 2010-11 budget year — when Cannon takes the reins of power from House Speaker Larry Cretul.
Cannon said he and Cretul are "taking the long view" because it's the right thing to do.
"It's not about me or any individual member of the House or Senate," Cannon said. "It's about what's the right way to do a budget."
Cannon points out the state needs to save more money to preserve its high bond rating.
Other lawmakers, such as the House Democrats' budget leader, Rep. Ron Saunders, said there's a clear link between Cannon, his speakership and the budget.
"The dynamic has changed," said Saunders of Key West. "Dean is worried about Year 3 — that's when he's House speaker," Saunders said, though noting that Cretul also has emphasized trying to establish more savings in the next few years.
Also, Saunders said, the tax increases the House might accept will happen this year — long before Cannon takes charge.
Cannon shuttled between closed-door meetings with Cretul, other House leaders and Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander on Wednesday.
One reason Cretul tapped Cannon: Senate President Jeff Atwater requested him, Cannon said.
Also, Cretul inherited a House that had two budget chiefs, Marcelo Llorente and David Rivera, instead of one. The Miami Republicans are running against each other for Senate.
Tapping one budget chief to lead House talks could trigger charges of favoritism.
Previous House Speaker Ray Sansom quit his post before he was indicted by a grand jury over allegedly abusing the budget system to help a friend and political contributor.
The grand jury also rapped the Legislature for the secretiveness of the budget process — a criticism that seems to have had little impact on lawmakers.
The budget talks — and Cannon's involvement — are so secret that high-level legislative Republican leaders would only detail them anonymously. Even Alexander, normally ever quotable, offered only two words when asked about Cannon's involvement: "No comment."
One reason for the reticence: Budget talks are tense. The House and Senate budgets are $547 million apart.
Failure to reach agreement this week will likely result in a legislative session that finishes May 1 without a balanced budget, which would mean a special session or overtime.
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.