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Bush tries to end budget disputes plaguing session

Gov. Jeb Bush stepped between warring legislative leaders Wednesday to try to end a dispute that has stalled every major issue in the Capitol.

Bush called on the Senate and House to stop offering take-it-or-leave-it budgets. He told them to go back to the "time-tested process" of sitting at a conference table in public to resolve differences.

"Conference is the place to work out these issues," Bush told reporters. "I hope we can get progress made where people feel comfortable going to conference."

The two chambers always disagree over the budget. This year is different because of a poisonous relationship between Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney that has its roots in arguments in the 2001 regular session and a special session last fall.

Neither leader agreed to a budget conference, but a potential breakthrough surfaced on tax reform, the issue that has dominated the 60-day regular session scheduled to end Friday.

House leaders floated a possible constitutional amendment for the November ballot to form a legislative committee to look at tax exemptions. The committee, by a two-thirds vote of its members, could repeal an exemption.

The exemption would be wiped out unless both chambers of the Legislature re-enacted it, said Rep. Rob Wallace, R-Tampa, who took part in backroom discussions on the proposal.

"Going into the Constitution would allow the standing committee to actually repeal the exemptions," said Wallace, chairman of the House committee that handles tax policy.

The new plan surfaced after talks among Wallace, Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan.

Feeney, who has resisted McKay's previous proposals to overhaul taxes, did not endorse the new plan but said he could support it if it does not stifle economic growth.

House leaders hope the proposal goes just far enough to let McKay claim victory for his promise of "substantive tax reform."

The Senate advanced its own version Wednesday night, a 12-member legislative committee to review exemptions and recommend by majority vote whether they should be re-enacted for 10-year periods. It was added to a Bush administration priority bill (SB 1844) creating technology centers at state universities.

Pruitt said the Senate opposes a tax committee that can only vote to eliminate exemptions by a two-thirds vote.

The tax talks involved handwritten notes on scraps of paper. "The devil is always in the details. We'll wait for the language," McKay said late Wednesday.

Ken Plante, a former Bush aide who also served in the Legislature, suggested the governor stay out of the budget crossfire and let lawmakers find a solution. "Let them cool off for a while and then come back," he suggested.

Lobbyist and former Rep. Mike Abrams of North Miami Beach, a Democrat who once headed the budget committee in the House, was mystified at the refusal of the two leaders to negotiate apparently minor differences.

"It's not healthy," Abrams said.