State budget talks stalled until after Easter

TALLAHASSEE — A fast-paced 2011 legislative session hit a major roadblock Wednesday as budget talks between the House and Senate broke down over a series of differences.

Both Republican-dominated chambers agree on the need to cut nearly $4 billion in spending without raising taxes. But details are proving elusive, especially the costs of higher-education cuts and new requirements over public-employee pensions.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, announced that negotiations would be delayed until the week of April 25, following the Passover and Easter holidays. That would leave two weeks to settle all budget differences before the session's scheduled adjournment May 6.

Alexander said senators want to minimize cuts to public schools for the fiscal year beginning July 1, in part through new pension and health care contributions by government employees.

"Given these differences, we will work with our House colleagues to come to an agreement that takes all these goals into account. We will continue to work toward a productive budget conference, following next week's holidays," Alexander said. "Unfortunately, we're not quite as far along as we'd like to be."

The sides also disagree on the size of college and university tuition increases, cuts to essential human services, the extent of privatization of state prisons and a proposed revamping of the state Supreme Court.

Any framework for budget negotiations requires the House and Senate to set a bottom-line number, and they are about $4 billion apart.

That's largely the result of new accounting practices by the Senate, which has included five water management districts, three local expressway authorities, employee health care costs and the budgets of all 67 elected county court clerks in its $70.1 billion budget.

The House's $66.5 billion budget has none of that.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said the House opposes including legislative oversight of expressway authorities, including the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, which he said is doing a good job.

"I think it's a non-starter in the House," said Weatherford, who added House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, agrees. "I just don't think it's helpful to Hillsborough County."

The House also opposes the relatively generous higher-education spending of the Senate, where President Mike Haridopolos is a college teacher and Alexander wants to steer more money to USF Polytechnic in Lakeland.

Another sticking point is Medicaid. Some in the House feel the Senate's version of a Medicaid reform bill is not close enough to the product the House sent the Senate last year.

Alexander said he "stands with" Senate President Mike Haridopolos on Medicaid, and he noted that Gov. Rick Scott supports elements of both the House and Senate plans.

Alexander said he was not troubled by the snag in budget talks, and said: "I'd rather stay and get it right rather than rush and get it wrong." He said the Senate is sending "trial balloons" to Gov. Scott as a way of ensuring that Scott does not veto major policy changes.

Politics also plays a powerful behind-the-scenes role in the tone and pace of budget negotiations. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, does not feel the pressing need to get out by May 6, but Haridopolos is eager to get out on the campaign trail as he seeks a U.S. Senate seat.

Cannon e-mailed House members Wednesday and floated the possibility of the session going into overtime. "I would advise members not to make plans or firm commitments for the period of time immediately following the scheduled end of session," Cannon wrote.

House Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, was more blunt at a private GOP caucus meeting, saying the session may go up to 10 days over and "if you have a problem with that, call your senator."

Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Jodie Tillman contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

State budget talks stalled until after Easter 04/13/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 13, 2011 8:08pm]

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