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New roadblocks hamper efforts for budget deal

TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers hit new snags Thursday as they worked to hammer out a budget deal, with money for schools and health care sticking points in the $66.5 billion spending plan.

The roadblocks provided late-session theatrics and raised the likelihood that key last-minute spending decisions would be made by a select few legislators, probably in private, to bring the 2011 session to a timely conclusion a week from now.

The spending differences, while relatively minor in a year of $4 billion in cuts, appeared tied to House Speaker Dean Cannon's priority: that the Senate find enough votes to pass his plan to expand the Florida Supreme Court.

As that drama played out, the Senate and House hit an impasse in the $29 billion health care budget.

The Senate wants to slash $372 million from two programs for the aged, disabled and medically needy and another $115 million from mental health and drug rehabilitation programs, and senators want to increase reimbursement rates to doctors by $338 million.

"The wheels came off. It's over. We're very far apart," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The House has refused, and wants to spend more to protect existing public health programs before giving more money to doctors. The two sides also are at odds over how to direct about $34 million in bailout money to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami.

Both chambers agreed to close a deficit at the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, but the House spends about $110 million more on the agency next year.

On education, Senate and House negotiators tentatively resolved their differences on how much money to sweep from trust funds for public school spending. The compromise was awaiting conference committee approval.

On higher education, legislators agreed to hike base tuition by 8 percent and will delay higher standards for Bright Futures scholarships. Universities are expected to ask the Board of Governors for another 7 percent tuition increase. The Senate budget spends more on colleges and universities than the House.

Other budget issues resolved Thursday included keeping open Hillsborough Correctional Institution in Riverview, the state's only faith-based prison for women, and allowing the state Supreme Court to borrow up to $54 million from taxpayers to plug a deficit from a slump in foreclosure filings. But the House rejected an unorthodox Senate proposal to give judges bonuses of up to $12,000 a year if they speed up their trials to ease case backlogs.

Still unresolved: the level of expansion of privatization in the state prison system. The House wants to privatize all prisons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and the Senate wants to privatize all prisons in an 18-county region south of Lake Okeechobee, in part to achieve higher cost savings.

Also unresolved is how much money will go to Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa and to Florida's three private historically black colleges. The House wants to spend more on both than the Senate.

Another issue dividing the two budgets is the environment. The Senate has reserved $19 million for Everglades cleanup while the House sets aside $25 million. The Senate has also come up with a creative approach to paying for the Florida Forever land-buying program, by dedicating proceeds of sales of surplus land or buildings to be used to buy environmentally sensitive lands.

Both Cannon and Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander said they expected agreement on a final budget in time for lawmakers to receive it by Tuesday, to allow for the required 72 hour "cooling off" period before the budget can be approved.

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo, Mary Ellen Klas, Patricia Mazzei and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

New roadblocks hamper efforts for budget deal 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 10:30pm]
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