Budget Sparks War of Words, Court Vote

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

Tallahassee, FL - The Senate budget chief slammed the House speaker in unusually blunt terms Monday as both sides traded shots over stalled negotiations aimed at hammering out a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

But in an attempt at a conciliatory gesture, a key Senate panel approved what would be a companion to Speaker Dean Cannon’s push to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court.

In an unusual presentation to the Senate Budget Committee, Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, went line-by-line through the Senate’s latest offer on allocations for specific areas of the budget and compared it to the initial budgets passed by each chamber.

The uptake: The Senate, through Alexander and President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, had made reasonable efforts to work with a petulant House, led by House Budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, and Cannon, R-Winter Park.

“I think the president has been doing everything possible to try to collegially work with a speaker who has done everything but to be seeking a win-win for both chambers,” Alexander told reporters after the meeting.

The outburst came after what Alexander said was a lack of responses to an offer Alexander made Thursday. Alexander said he had gone as far as to knock on Grimsley’s door Monday morning, to no avail.

For her part, Grimsley sent out a memo to House members arguing the opposite: That the Senate was backing away from agreements struck earlier, forcing House negotiators to try to hit a moving target. The House made an offer before the Senate’s weeklong break for Passover and Easter that brought the chambers within $155 million of a deal, she said.

“We were optimistic that this offer would put us in striking distances of starting budget conference this week,” Grimsley wrote. “Unfortunately, in each subsequent offer we have received, the Senate opened up previously agreed-on issues and moved further and further away to the point where the last Senate offer places the House and Senate $425 million apart.”

Both chambers are overwhelmingly controlled by Republicans.

A potential cause for the rift could be an apparent handing-off of negotiations. A House budget summary distributed with Grimsley’s memo shows an offer from Haridopolos and one from Cannon followed by offers from Alexander and an unspecified House negotiator.

“Quite frankly, the speaker’s done everything he can to not deal with me, because I know the budget well, and I can figure out his gamesmanship pretty quickly,” Alexander said.

But Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Cannon, said in an email that the negotiations were proceeding the way they should.

“The Speaker has not been negotiating with the Senate Budget Chairman and does not intend to,” Betta wrote in an email. “Rather, under proper legislative protocol the Speaker negotiates with the Senate President.”

Alexander, she said, should negotiate with Grimsley.

The remaining disagreements revolve around an array of issues, from pensions to the money lawmakers will set aside in case negotiators need more money to address additional issues.

Alexander said the Senate had agreed to the House’s insistence on requiring all state employees to contribute 3 percent of their income to their own retirements. The Senate had preferred a “tiering” approach that would have required employees making different levels of income to pay different rates.

But disagreements remained over how to handle cost-of-living adjustments that the Senate wanted to freeze in future years.

The Senate wants to set aside almost $443 million for contingencies in conference; the House wants to hold back just $160 million.

Senate negotiators also compromised on a $150 million sweep of the transportation trust fund, an account many senators consider almost sacrosanct, while trying to move closer to the House on education. But Alexander said there were also some sticking points on the criminal justice budget, including 900 positions the House wanted to slice from state attorneys and public defenders.

“That’s not a sustainable thing,” he said. “We won’t do that.”

But in an apparent effort to give the House something it wants, Alexander pushed through the Senate Budget Committee a measure that would mirror Cannon’s proposal to overhaul the Supreme Court by splitting the court into two panels to handle criminal and civil appeals separately and making several changes to the way justices are selected.

Supporters say the package will allow the courts to deal with cases more efficiently; opponents say the proposal is nothing more than court-packing, noting that the measure would steer all the justices appointed by the last Democratic governor away from the panel that would handle challenges to the Legislature’s authority. The current court struck several legislatively-backed constitutional amendments from the ballot over the summer, including one argued personally by Cannon.

“The perception is, this is about payback,” said Stephen Sarnoff, president of Local 3179 of the Communications Workers of America.

Democratic senators also reacted angrily to the proposal. “Today, we are emasculating the judiciary if we do this,” said Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

But Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, pushed back against charges that the amendment was anti-democratic. He said the measure would need 60 percent approval in a state referendum to become law.

“To me, that is democracy,” Thrasher said. “That’s saying to the people of Florida, ‘Here’s our view of where the courts of the state of Florida are; what’s your view?’”

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, openly mused about what caused several senators to abruptly start boosting the House version of the amendment.

“I’m wondering as I’m listening to them, whether they’re not trying to convince themselves because a speaker wants to get a priority passed, but we want to get a budget passed,” Fasano said.

The new version of what had been a court-rulemaking bill (SB 2084) passed on a 15-5 vote, with Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, joining the Republican majority against the vote of every other Democrat on the panel.

After the vote, Alexander conceded he pushed the new courts bill in an attempt to get some traction on the stalled budget negotiations.

“We’ve been trying to send signals that we’re ready to dance,” he said. “But we’re not going to be thrown around the dance floor. We’re going to dance properly.”

Cannon’s spokeswoman rejected the notion the court measure was part of a trade based on personal priorities.

"Speaker Cannon does not engage in political games surrounding the Legislature's constitutional responsibility to pass a balanced budget,” said Betta.


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