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Budget talks stall momentarily over higher education cuts

State House and Senate leaders commenced budget negotiations Tuesday night, ending a daylong standoff that threatened to extend the 60-day legislative session beyond the March 9 deadline.

House Speaker Dean Cannon made the announcement from the floor of the House of Representatives at about 2:45 p.m.

"Speaker just announced that House and Senate have reached agreement on budget allocations and are ready to begin conference on budget," Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, posted on her Twitter account from the House floor.

Earlier Tuesday, it seemed that a clash between the Senate and House on proposed cuts to universities could result in lawmakers failing to finish their work on time.

Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander said talks stalled Monday and Tuesday morning because of the House's insistence on a permanent $200 million cut to the state university system, which the Senate can't support.

"That's a deal-killer," said Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

In the end, Cannon spokeswoman Katie Betta said that the House agreed to no recurring cuts to higher education.

Senators vote to keep job perk

A standing-room-only crowd in the Senate Budget Committee on Tuesday witnessed a tense and awkward debate. At issue was the benefit legislators enjoy of health insurance premiums much lower than many rank-and-file state workers.

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, offered an amendment to a bill that would have increased legislators' premiums from $8 to $50 a month for individual coverage and from $30 to $180 a month for family coverage. The proposal was defeated on an unrecorded voice vote, with Alexander making the ruling.

"There's no rationale for legislators to pay significantly lower health care costs than our counterparts in state government," Negron argued. "This does not change anything except for 160 people in this building."

But senator after senator challenged Negron, including Republicans Mike Bennett, Ellyn Bogdanoff and Evelyn Lynn and Democrat Gary Siplin. Bogdanoff accused Negron of making "political statements," and Bennett told Negron: "You're going to lower the pool of people who can afford to take this job."

Dollars behind drug fight

Few issues in the Legislature this year may intertwine campaign money and public policy more than a proposal (HB 511 and SB 668) to trim workers' compensation costs by limiting what doctors can charge for dispensing repackaged drugs to workers' comp patients.

It's not dead yet, but the measure that Florida Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty says would save Floridians at least $62 million annually, has met stiff Senate opposition.

Helping lead the fight against the measure is Miramar-based Automated Healthcare Solutions, which does a lucrative business selling software to help workers' comp doctors dispense medication. The company and its affiliates have funneled at least $625,000 to Republican legislators and political committees this year, including more than $370,000 to the Florida GOP. In the prior election cycle, it gave more than $2 million, overwhelmingly to Republican legislators and political groups.

It's possible Automated Healthcare executives simply want to support the Republican agenda, of course. But it's curious that a similar repacked drug reform bill before the Hawaii Legislature also hit a road block from a Democratic state senator there who had received $35,000 in contributions connected to Automated Healthcare Solutions.

Natalie Watson and Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.

Budget talks stall momentarily over higher education cuts 02/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 28, 2012 7:58pm]
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