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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  • by Bill Location: Tallahassee on Apr 18, 2011 at 06:05 PM
    @ Bruce: You are not very smart, are you? The vast majority of taxes get paid by the middle class because the middle class is a MUCH larger group than the rich. Check your facts before you spew your uninformed opinion. Maybe we should all be "self-reliant" like our governor and "apply ourselves" by raping tax payer funded "free handout" programs like Medicaid. Then we could all "redistribute" these funds by paying taxes.....GIVE ME A BREAK!
  • by Bruce Location: Tallahassee on Apr 18, 2011 at 04:18 PM
    Public employees have been shielded from the economic downturn much longer than private employees. No one wants to see others put out of work, but if you are interested in fairness, it has finally come to Tallahassee. Further, claims by some that by cutting the budget, the legislature is taking from the middle and lower income earners and giving to the rich borders on lunacy. From where does the vast majority of tax money come? The upper income earners! Over the years, who's been subsidising all the handouts to the middle and lower income folks through various government programs that redistribute taxes? The upper income earners! Get off the "free handout" wagon and apply yourselves to improve your standard of living. Unfortunately, self-reliance has become a dirty word in our society. Akin to that is the notion that the government should be the largest (and most inefficient) "charity" in our society.
  • by ted Location: tallahassee on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:05 AM
    In past recessions, florida government reduced spending by cutting acroos the board so that no program or geographic area would be unfairly hurt, basically everyone shared the pain. According to this article, we are 5-6% away from balancing-just cut across the board! Instead,Scott and the republicans are using this opportunity to make war on the middle class and those most vulnerable in Florida, implementing a HATEFUL SOCIAL agenda that has nothing to do with the "budget". Income redistribution is happening all right-from the middle and lower classes to the most wealthy!
    • reply
      by Thom on Apr 18, 2011 at 12:58 PM in reply to ted
      Coorect. And, I belive Republicans forget that state workers are only .85% (1 employee for every 117 citizens). Why is most of the budget gap being borne by such a small percentage? Is that fair, democratic and just?
  • by The Cat on Apr 18, 2011 at 10:03 AM
    It is amazing to me how so many people say they did not vote for this man; however, he is our elected official of this great state. If is also funny that the very ones that supported him to become governor is the main ones that realized they made the biggest mistakes of their lives. Rick Scott does not care about anything or anyone but himself. His company was fined over $1.7 billion in medicare and insurance fraud, yet some believe he a good man. He goes to meetings with different dignitaries and make inappropriate speeches. He make comments that he is not backing down until he gets what HE wants, forgetting he was elected to support what's best for the people of Florida. He however managed to convince some people that the company that his wife is over (Solantic) is going to be sold. Well last I checked he is still the head of the company according to SEC. This man is full of lies and he is mad at the government for shutting him down. So his retaliation is become the CEO of the state and change everything that may affect businesses so they can get rich while people inevitable go broke. Sad, Sad, Sad case and our also elected legislature (senate and house) members does not want to hear the cry of the people. If this doesn't stop this state is in for a rude awakening. What gets me so much is he is so big about getting reid of some many state employees but the truth of the matter is if they do not have a job how will they pay bills; the private sector does not have to hire them. So now unemployment goes up. On top of which state employees have not received a rise in over 6 years. Then they (governor and legislature) wants to take a percentage of their pay for a retirement plan that is productive. As usually a republican gets in the seat and mess up and a democrat comes back and try to clean up their mess only for ignorant people to blame the democrat for something a republican did. Hint, Hint: Barack Obama. The cycle just goes on and on.
  • by leon Location: tally on Apr 18, 2011 at 08:12 AM
    Rick Scott moved to Florida in 2009 just so he could run for the governor's seat. He pocketed a $300million golden parachute when the board of Columbia/HCA forced him out for presiding over the biggest Medicare fraud of the century, then spent $80 million of it to outspend Alex Sink's campaign 10-to-1.
    • reply
      by Anonymous on Apr 18, 2011 at 02:00 PM in reply to leon
      Not true. Anyone running for Governor of Florida must have resided in Florida for the preceding 7 years. This is in the Florida Constitution. Are you saying that Rick Scott was not qualified to run in 2010?
  • by Happy? on Apr 18, 2011 at 08:07 AM
    I hope your happy with Dictator Scott's "will not bend my way or highway policies". This state will self implode. You think cutting peoples salaries will help with the recession? Rising gas prices, cost of food items rising...This guy WILL destroy Florida with his skewed views and thinking. I am NOT a state employee, but would rather keep my property taxes as they are and not have them lowered a couple of bucks in order to save many of these employees that are going to get hurt. I've spoken to many who will now not be able to make a mortgage and no they are not living above their means, just trying to survive.
  • by Thom on Apr 18, 2011 at 07:42 AM
    As pointed out below and by numerous news stories, Florida is already the state with the lowest per citizen cost of state employees and the lowest number of state employees per citizen. The Ta Foundation ranks Florida as the 5th most friendly tax climate for business with only S.D., Alaska, Wyoming and Nevada ahead of us right now. Scott wants to move further up the list, but that may do more harm than good. In athleticz there is suc a thing as over-training, and after a certain point you do more harm than good by training more and harder. Scott is going to kill Florida's economy.
  • by cw Location: Tallahassee on Apr 18, 2011 at 07:09 AM
    The last thing Florida needs to do is cut taxes for businesses and lower regulations. We all know how much of the beauty in Florida has been ruined by the lower regulations. Only a rich man would want these changes - Rick Scott. I still cannot understand how the people of Florida voted him in office - how many of you are now working? A registered Republican here, but I have enough sense to know that elected a person of shady intrigrity was not the answer. I hate to think how low Florida will sink during his term in office. We are so low now with education, it is pitiful, but hey, all of Rick's friends will be happy - they can afford private school. Way to go Rick - screw over the state as much as you can. I hope we all survive his term.
  • by leon Location: tally on Apr 18, 2011 at 07:06 AM
    Tallahassee's tax base has been progressively eroded by the Republican policies of the past decade, with a 32% loss of income in the local state workforce of 33,000 due to the lack of COLA wage adjustments since 2005 (compounded y2y). That's the economic equivalent of Tally losing 10,000 jobs out of its total workforce of 120,000 - a hidden baseline of lost economic activity. Mind you, Florida has HALF the state workforce per capita of the U.S. average, and we already have the cheapest state workforce, but these fools are going to cram it down some more. What do they suppose will happen to the supporting tax base around the state as home values erode some more as a result? There are 750,000 FRS participants who are already living on a margin, that's 8% of the Fla. workforce who will stop discretionary spending if FRS members are hit with a 4% contribution. What are the odds that this'll cause another budget shortfall, for the sake of not closing $1.9b in corporate tax loopholes?
  • by leon Location: tally on Apr 18, 2011 at 06:58 AM
    So b/c this statehouse will not apply taxes to those most able to pay (as identified by Bob Graham and others, also supported by the glaring disparity of income in Florida - $43k median income, $75k average), we are going to close the budget gap through furloughs, privitization (which proved a costly failure before) and forcing employee contribution to FRS (which failed before when refunds to employees leaving the system caused a sudden defunding in 1974).
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