Florida lawmakers delay their budget negotiations

— House Speaker Dean Cannon warned colleagues that the Florida Legislature may go into overtime as budget negotiations between the two chambers remained on hold Wednesday.

The House and Senate passed differing versions of the state budget last week. Joint conference committees had been expected to start meeting Thursday to resolve those differences, but Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander said they've been delayed and now won't begin for at least another 11 days.

The Lake Wales Republican said leaders haven't yet resolved preliminary issues in behind-the-scene discussions. That includes deciding how many dollars to allocate to each major section of the budget such as education and health care.

The House passed a $66.5 billion budget bill. The Senate's version tops $70 billion.

"I am optimistic that the conference process will produce a responsible, balanced budget," Cannon, R-Winter Park, wrote in a memorandum but then added: "I would advise members not to make plans or firm commitments for the period of time immediately following the end of session."

The 60-day session is scheduled to end May 6, but lawmakers could extend it. Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, acting jointly or Gov. Rick Scott also could call a special session.

Alexander said there'll be no joint conference committee meetings this week or next, when the Senate goes into recess for the Passover and Easter holidays. The House plans a scaled-back schedule next week, with representatives working only on Wednesday and Thursday.

"It's not worth rushing," Alexander said. "We'd rather step back, go slow, make sure we get it right."

Besides the budget, the Senate and House have differences over Medicaid. Bills in both chambers would put the state-federal health care program under a managed care system with private companies and groups of hospitals and other providers delivering services to poor and disabled people, but they differ on the details.

Alexander said Scott will be a factor in those discussions as he prefers some aspects of each bill. Alexander said he also wants to take his time with those issues because he doesn't want to risk the governor calling lawmakers back into special session if he doesn't like the final version.

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