TALLAHASSEE— Lawmakers enter what is typically the final slog this week as they return from Passover/Easter holidays for the final frenzied two weeks of the Legislative session.
The word “typically” is key here. That’s because lawmakers return to a session that unlike those in recent years has no foreseeable final approach. Budget talks have yet to begin and the governor continues to press for tax cuts that legislative leaders have politely dismissed as undoable. Did I mention that the chambers are nearly $3 billion apart and face a $3.8 budget deficit.
The result is a session finale mirroring one of those twisty, suspense movies in which several endings are equally possible as the final scene begins. The extrication could just rival, depending on your age, “Inception”, “Ocean’s 11” or “The Sting.”
On the budget front, House and Senate negotiators still have no agreement on the allocations of money for specific parts of the budget. Such broad allocations, which set the parameters for each part of the budget – education, health and human services and so on – are the necessary starting points to more detailed negotiations on the budget.
So far, House and Senate leaders are not in agreement on those broad category amounts. Among the biggest bones of contention between the two spending plans is how deeply to cut Medicaid spending. The Senate has taken deeper cuts and proposes changes to Medically Needy, an optional program, by cutting hospital and pharmaceutical benefits. The Senate is also proposing deeper cuts to hospital rates.
Negotiations between the two chambers was supposed to begin more than a week ago, but talks have been called off until some agreement can be reached on spending amounts.
“Today, I think we’re still where we were yesterday, which is we’re making some progress, but progress is sort of in the eye of the beholder,” a usually optimistic House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, told reporters last week. “I still am confident that we’ll get done on time, but I’m not guaranteeing that we’ll get done on time.”
Waiting in the wings is Gov. Rick Scott, who said repeatedly last week that he expects some type of corporate income tax cut to emerge from budget talks. Such gubernatorial pressure is not unusual, but this time around leaders don’t have a clue whether its bluff, ultimatum or a hybrid of both.
“We have the most fiscally conservative Legislature in history,” Scott told reporters last week. “I’m very comfortable that we’ll end up with the beginning of phasing out the corporate tax.”
His cries apparently have been heard. Last week, a bill to give Scott a tax cut was scheduled to be heard early this week in two committees, making it available for the floor. The measure, by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is being amended to phase in a corporate tax cut over several years. The proposal, part of a tax bill (SB 1236) slated to be heard in two committees this week, could provide the governor the tax break he wants.