Friday, February 23, 2018
Politics

State lawmakers end budget stalemate, but clash with Rick Scott looms

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers reached a tentative deal on an $83 billion budget Tuesday that could end the session on time but could put them on a collision course with Gov. Rick Scott.

A day after a stalemate threatened to derail the legislative session, Republican leaders in the House and Senate privately hammered out the broad terms of a deal that ensures both sides can claim victory for their top priorities.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, confirmed that Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, would likely survive with an operating budget — but no money for financial incentives to help Scott attract businesses to Florida.

"I don't think it's going to be where the governor would have liked to have seen Enterprise Florida," Galvano said. "But at the same time, there's still some life left."

That's expected to antagonize Scott, who has traveled throughout the state in recent weeks criticizing House Republicans by name who voted to abolish the program.

Coincidentally, Scott is on an Enterprise Florida trade mission in Argentina this week. He had asked the Legislature for $23.5 million to pay for the agency's operations, and $85 million more for economic incentives to lure companies to Florida.

Another major setback for Scott: Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing arm, would see its budget slashed by two-thirds to $25 million and would be forced to adhere to new restrictions on salaries and travel that the House demanded and the agency opposed.

Scott last week asked that Visit Florida receive $100 million next year.

State director of bond finance Ben Watkins sent a letter to legislators on Tuesday, warning them that cuts to Visit Florida could result in a loss of sales tax revenue, which could hurt the state's bond rating and make it more expensive for the state to borrow money.

"We are very concerned that reduced funding to promote tourism would adversely affect revenues collected at the state and local level," Watkins wrote.

Under the tentative budget agreement, as described by Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, the House agreed to support the Senate's highest priority, a massive new reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce discharges of toxic water.

Scott had also called for a $200 million state-backed loan to the U.S. government to accelerate repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike around the lake, but it was not clear whether that proposal has the Legislature's support.

The House won agreement for its $200 million "schools of hope" incentive to entice specialized charter schools to move to Florida and compete with traditional public schools that have been designated as failing.

The House also agreed to the Senate's proposed increase in state university spending and need-based financial aid for students, and the House would agree to the Senate's call for an across-the-board pay raise for state workers.

The Senate would agree with the House not to rely on higher property tax bills to pay for an increase in per-student school spending.

The two sides also have a tentative agreement on a package of tax cuts, and Braynon said the House would agree to about $400 million in projects in lawmakers' districts — less than the $700 million the Senate wanted but more than the House's initial offer of $150 million.

Despite promises by legislative leaders of greater transparency, the outline of the deal was known before any public negotiations took place.

Detailed public negotiations were scheduled to start today.

The budget must be finished by Tuesday for the session to end on time on May 5. The state Constitution requires a 72-hour cooling-off period before lawmakers take an up-or-down vote on the final budget, which cannot be changed.

"Time is precious at this point," said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

In the timeless tradition of Tallahassee horse-trading, Trujillo said each side inevitably had to pay homage to the other side's goals.

"If we can't respect their priorities, they can't respect ours," Trujillo said.

Times/Herald staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report.

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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