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Budget Impasse? Courting Change: Florida Political Weekly Roundup

By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida
By: Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 18, 2011 -

Peeps and other Easter confections will be half price or off the shelves completely when House and Senate negotiators sit down to begin hammering out their differences between two competing budget plans.

Talks appeared to break down last week before they even began.

More than $ 3 billion apart, chamber leaders this week all but conceded that the session might go beyond the May 6 scheduled end, with conference committees now not scheduled to even start until April 25 at the earliest. That would give legislators two weeks to hammer out a compromise, assuming they don’t do any work during the Easter-Passover off week.

And Gov. Rick Scott on Friday threw a new egg into the hunt: he essentially said he wouldn’t sign a budget that doesn’t include tax cuts, which legislative leaders have been reluctant to include. Already pressed to fill a nearly $4 billion gap, both chambers’ leaders said they would love tax cuts, but that they couldn’t really figure out how to do it. In his weekly radio address on Friday, Scott essentially said, they better find a way.

“I will not compromise on these principles,” of having a smaller budget, a smaller government – both of those are going to be delivered – and tax cuts, Scott said.

Putting budget building on the fast track during the session’s first half, maybe leaders had a clue that crafting a spending blueprint would be more difficult than usual even with a veto-proof majority in both chambers and an electorate seemingly willing to do less with less.

With a $3.75 billion shortfall and the faces of those whose lives will be affected by cuts showing up at committee hearings, House and Senate negotiators find themselves $3 billion apart and unable to decide where to begin.

“Unfortunately, we’re not quite as far along as we would like to be,” Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, told members of his Budget Committee this week. “The president has worked very diligently but we’re not ready to begin conference as yet.”

House Speaker Dean Cannon sent a memo to members urging them not to make plans for the period in early May right after when session would normally end.

There are significant gaps to reconcile between the $66.5 billion House blueprint and the Senate's $69.8 billion measure. The House would require workers to kick in 3 percent of their income regardless of their earnings to bolster their pensions. The Senate plan would set different charges on different levels of income, ranging from 2 percent on the first $25,000 of pay to 6 percent on any pay above $50,000.

The House proposal sweeps $330 million from the State Transportation Trust Fund --- a seemingly annual battle with the Senate.

Those are just some of the most closely-watched differences, there are plenty of others more obscure, from how to deal with water management district revenue to whether to remove the clerks of courts from the general revenue budget.

“It’s a hard year and we’re a long way apart,” said Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, the House budget chairwoman. “It might take a little longer than normal, but we’ll get there. It’s moving along.”

Despite impasse over next year’s spending, budget makers were able to help Scott on at least one front this week by allowing the governor to maintain payments to those who provide services through the Agency for Persons with Disabilities. Prompted by budget constraints, Scott had issued an executive order to cut provider rates by 15 percent to fill a $174 million deficit. Lawmakers found the money, however, to make up the deficit and Scott was able to rescind the edict.
Lawmakers also got a boost from BP Oil, which announced another $30 million to help Northwest Florida dig itself out of the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Scott said the money will be used by Panhandle counties to get the word out that Florida’s beaches are clean and the fish are biting.

UNEMPLOYMENT DROPPING
The governor was able to deliver some good news, announcing Friday that Florida's unemployment rate fell in March to 11.1 percent, from 11.5 in February, and reaching the lowest it’s been in over a year. That was good news enough to prompt Scott to make the announcement in person instead of letting the state labor agency simply make its usual electronic data release.
"We're seeing an encouraging trend since Florida's unemployment rate has declined for three straight months," Scott told reporters. "We are clearly heading in the right direction but we still have a long way to go because we still have more than 1 million people out of work."
The state's jobless rate is 0.2 percentage points lower than March 2010, but still higher than the national unemployment rate, which in March was 8.8 percent.

ELECTIONS AND THE COURTS

Though budget talks moved at a glacial speed, other Republican-backed efforts affecting the courts, elections, gun rights and other initiatives worked their way through committees as leaders tried to ready measures for after the Passover/Easter holidays that have become a spring break of sorts before lawmakers head into the session’s rapid-fire final weeks.

A Senate plan that passed that chamber’s Rules Committee on Friday would limit early voting to seven days and move the state’s usual non-presidential primary until after Labor Day. The Senate plan (SB 2086) also takes away the ability for voters to change their names or addresses on Election Day.

A House bill (HB 1355) also makes a slate of changes to the state's election law by allowing some registered voters to change their addresses on Election Day. Both measures also place more restrictions on citizen initiative petitions, including how long signatures are valid.

In other election news, the House announced this week a plan to have a commission set next year’s presidential primary date, now scheduled for Jan. 31. The commission would get until October to figure out how to get Florida the presidential due leaders think the big, diverse state deserves, without losing the support of the national party – and some of the state’s delegates, by breaking with the tradition that lets states like Iowa and New Hampshire go first.
Also, a proposal (SB 830) limiting the ability of unions to use payroll deductions to collect political contributions from members who work for the government was moving toward final votes this week.
On Friday, the Senate Rules Committee made a change, that backers said clarifies that only money for political purposes would be barred from payroll deductions. A House version (HB 1021) banning all union dues deductions for government workers has already passed that chamber.

Speaker Cannon’s effort to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court also moved closer to becoming law this week as the House passed a bill creating a 10 member court, with five justices for civil cases and five for criminal cases. Democrats attacked it as court packing, an effort to boost the now-seven member court with new Republican appointees and to move all the experienced judges – including the three appointed by Democrat Lawton Chiles – to the criminal side. That would get them away from the civil arena, where they can throw out laws created by the GOP Legislature, and maybe be involved in redistricting.

Several judicial heavy-hitters, including former Florida Supreme Court justices and former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham joined the Florida Bar to oppose the proposed changes that also include making it easier to impeach sitting judges, and giving the governor more authority over judicial nominations.
Cannon maintains the move is strictly about efficiency.

But there may not be a Senate companion – although there might be. A Senate version emerged in an amendment this week, but was withdrawn before being attached to a bill.

Lawmakers also spent time this week screening:

A House bill (HB 7089) that would require employers to screen newly hired workers for their immigration status and give police the power to question criminal suspects to determine if they are in the country legally. In the Senate, action on a less restrictive version (SB 2040) that only includes employer verification requirements was postponed until after Easter.

The House Economic Affairs Committee approved the measure backers say will allow the state to take steps to control illegal immigration without going down the Arizona rabbit hole that has led that state’s law to court. Hundreds of critics lined up to speak against the measure, which is now on its way to the House floor. Opponents include farm worker advocates, business and agricultural interests, the clergy and some law enforcements groups.

-Bills traveling in both chambers that would require recipients of temporary financial assistance to undergo drug tests at their own expense. Backers say the measure would send a message to drug users that taxpayer dollars would not be used to feed their addictions. Critics said the changes have not basis in research and would punish families already under great stress.

Not all the action took place in legislative chambers. Scott made headlines this week for announcing his intent to sell his family’s stake in the Solantic urgent care clinic chain. Dogged by questions over his ties to the company, Scott said last week he would sell off his interest (now in his wife’s control) to New York investment firm Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe, which had been a minority shareholder in the private company.

Terms of the sale of Scott’s share weren’t disclosed in detail, but the Palm Beach Post reported the sale price was under $60 million. Scott’s interest in the company was valued at $62 million in his financial disclosure last year. The St. Petersburg Times, which first reported the sale, said the deal would close April 29.


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