Florida lawmakers avoid meltdown; get deal on budget

TALLAHASSEE — Leaders of the Republican-controlled House and Senate cleared the way for formal budget negotiations on Tuesday only hours after it appeared the process was bogged down over differences on allocations for higher education.

The short-lived standoff came when the Senate refused a House offer to cut $200 million in annual spending on higher education, a "deal killer" that might have delayed the Legislature in meeting its March 9 adjournment.

But the fencing ended quickly with a mid-afternoon joint statement from Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.

"We were able to produce budget allocations that address a more than $1 billion shortfall, increase Pre-K 12 education funding by more than $1 billion and set aside ample reserves," Cannon said.

The Senate passed a budget (SB 7050) of nearly $71 billion on Feb. 15, two weeks after a $69.2 billion budget passed in the House.

The House budget (HB 5001) is about $1.6 billion less because the Senate wants budget control over two local expressway authorities. The Senate budget, which totals nearly $70.8 billion, boosts funding for road-building while also establishing cuts for substance abuse programs. Both target thousands of state workers' jobs. The House budget would raise the cost of college and cut health care programs while the Senate's proposal cuts spending on hospitals, and limits emergency room visits for poor patients.

The differences will be worked out by the budget conferees that were to be named later Tuesday.

The announcement from Cannon and Haridopolos put a quick end to a bit of the histrionics that seem to frequent the final days of Florida's annual nine-week legislative sessions. A similar agreement came last year after a bit of name-calling between the chambers and some harsh words from negotiators.

This week's drama came in the form of a disagreement over a one-time, $400 million sweep of university reserves. The parties settled for $300 million, but the House wanted a recurring $200 million reduction.

"That's a deal killer for us" Senate budget negotiator JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said. "It's hard enough to ask for some of the excess cash back."

The Senate preferred to plug any shortage with money from the universities' reserves, or savings account.

"No progress has been made, and I'm a little frustrated," Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said Tuesday, noting that things had reached a stalemate sometime Monday.

The Senate said it would prefer returning in a special session to resolve budget issues before giving way on higher education cuts.

"We made an accommodation to them on health and human services, we would expect the same accommodation," Haridopolos said. "They (House) clearly understand where we stand."

And it appeared they did as agreement came only a couple hours later.

Legislators now have seven days left to bridge their differences and finish on time. State law requires the final version of the budget to be on lawmakers' desks 72 hours before a final vote.

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