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Last-second deal keeping Capitol busy

With just hours to go in their annual session, state legislators on Thursday struck compromises on some of the year's toughest issues, including tax refunds, school vouchers and pork barrel projects.

With those agreements in hand, the Legislature is expected to adjourn on time today.

Gov. Lawton Chiles and legislative leaders set the stage for an amicable departure by agreeing to restore at least $15-million in projects the governor had vetoed.

As those olive branches were extended in public, House Speaker Daniel Webster and Senate President Toni Jennings said they had agreed to a plan that calls for the Legislature today to approve an unprecedented test of controversial school vouchers. The vouchers would be used by a small group of kindergarten-aged children in two unnamed counties.

It is unclear whether Chiles will drop his firm opposition to any use of public money for private schooling.

"I think if they are going to do a pilot program," he said, "they shouldn't be doing it with public money."

The voucher program is expected to be tied to a package of other programs aimed at better preparing children for school, a package that Chiles and many Democrats want.

The stage also is set today for final approval on tax relief plans aimed at pleasing voters: A $50 refund to owners of homestead property and earmarking several days in August for tax-free clothing and footwear purchases.

Webster said his agreement with Jennings calls for purchases of clothing and shoes that cost less than $50 per item to be exempt from the sales tax. An earlier Senate plan called for the exemption to carry a $100 limit on total purchases.

For example, three shirts and two pairs of pants whose total cost was less than $100 would have been exempt from the sales tax under the earlier plan.

Under the compromise, each article of clothing or pair of shoes that costs less than $50 would be exempt from the tax, regardless of the total bill.

Less than 24 hours after Chiles released his $96-million list of vetoed projects, lawmakers got to work plugging them back into the budget. Rather than a contentious override effort, they simply amended their projects onto unrelated bills, in several cases with the governor's blessing.

Rep. Randy Mackey, D-Lake City, revived a $13.2-million deal for a high school in Columbia County after Chiles said he didn't mind as long as the project is considered by a review committee.

"I said, "Go get a letter from the governor, and I'll do it,' " Webster said chuckling, after the House unanimously plugged the money back in. "I didn't know (legislators) would go get five or six of them. I set the bar too low."

Chiles' communications director, April Herrle, said the governor would not reverse any more vetoes today and would be looking at vetoed projects tacked onto other bills.

"We could exercise our authority to line-item veto the appropriations," she said.

Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, said he talked to Chiles about several projects of his that were vetoed. He said he is helping Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, try to get a $1-million appropriation for an Eckerd Youth Camp restored.

The voucher agreement outlined by Webster would involve just 300 children who normally would enter public kindergarten this fall.

Jennings said she doesn't even like the word "vouchers" to describe the program.

But by any name, it would cross a line between public money and private schools that never has been broken.

Public vouchers for private tuition has been a top priority for Webster and is strongly supported by the Chirstian Coalition and other conservative groups. Webster, an Orlando Republican, has held up a final vote on subsidized health insurance for low-income children and school readiness programs until he could win at least a test of vouchers.

Jennings, a more moderate Republican, had kept her silence on the issue throughout the session. She contended Thursday night that the state is required by the federal government to pay for public or private schooling for pre-schoolers who would be involved in the experiment.

"We're not creating anything that is not in existence," Jennings said. "We are not expanding existing Florida law."

Under the agreement outlined by Webster, 300 children who were determined to be unprepared to enter public kindergarten would be included in the program. Their families would be given the same amount of money the state intends to spend per student in their county, probably around $3,500. The money could be used to pay for tuition at a private pre-school.

Only two unnamed counties would be involved in the pilot program, which would cost the state roughly $1-million.

Jennings said the money would come from the tobacco settlement.

The vouchers are expected to be included in the children's readiness package today. That would then force Chiles to decide whether he would swallow the vouchers he opposes in order to save children's programs he supports.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.