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Legislature faces lots of work, little time

TALLAHASSEE — Will the House and Senate dig in further or will there be a miraculous agreement on the budget?

That is the question hanging over the Capitol as lawmakers return to work after closed-door budget talks reached a low point Friday.

The impasse rests on major philosophical differences and a $547 million gap between the Senate and House spending plans for the budget year that begins July 1.

The House demands the Senate agree to big cuts to state worker pay, a transportation fund and higher education, arguing a longer term response to the economic woes is right.

Over the weekend, top budget negotiators tried to advance their position. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, told the Times/Herald that lawmakers should stay in Tallahassee beyond Friday's scheduled adjournment. The House wants to take a few weeks off.

"I would not want to look back and say I wasted one day and did not work as hard as I could to resolve these issues," Alexander said. "I'll be the last one turning the lights off." Taking a break is dangerous, he said: "If you go home and come back, it would almost invariably put us into June, which would have us bumping up against July 1."

That led to a rebuttal from Rep. Dean Cannon, the Winter Park Republican who's acting as the No. 1 House negotiator.

"As both President (Jeff) Atwater and Speaker (Larry) Cretul indicated, talks aren't over. Folks are continuing to run numbers this weekend and I anticipate that they'll continue talking on Monday," Cannon said. "It's more important that we do it right than that we do it quickly."

The budget aside, there is still lots of work to do.

The House, which begins session at 9 a.m., has dozens of bills to take up. The Senate has a similarly busy schedule and begins work at 1 p.m.

The House is expected to pass a bill establishing minimum standards for police using confidential informers. It arises out of the death of Florida State University and Countryside High graduate Rachel Hoffman and her parents are expected to be in attendance for the vote.

But the bill has been greatly watered down. Law enforcement groups have managed to remove aspects of the bill that they say would make it much harder to use informers.

Hoffman's parents have pressed for the inclusion of the prohibition of using people in drug treatment, as well as pairing nonviolent offenders with known violent people and requiring officers to advise someone he or she has the right to speak to an attorney before agreeing to participate.

Hoffman agreed last April to become a police informer after officers found marijuana and ecstasy in her Tallahassee apartment.

The 23-year-old was found dead of gunshots on May 9 after police gave her $13,000 to buy 1,500 ecstasy pills, cocaine and a gun from suspected drug dealers. Two men have been arrested.

Meanwhile, the Senate is expected to pass a bill allowing 11 state universities to raise undergraduate in-state tuition by up to 15 percent a year.

The idea is to give the institutions more teaching resources and more money for need-based aid to students.

But the full impact of the revenues won't be realized for several years, and the House and Senate remain more than $400-million apart on funding proposals for community colleges and universities.

Legislature faces lots of work, little time 04/27/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 27, 2009 6:01am]
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