[UPDATE] Clock Ticking on Florida Budget Negotiations

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida; Troy Kinsey; AP Email
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida; Troy Kinsey; AP Email


Setting the stage for a timely ending of session, House and Senate conferees early Tuesday reached a deal on the state’s $68 billion spending plan that includes $308 million in tax breaks, and no cuts to the state’s Medically Needy program or substance abuse efforts.

In what Gov. Rick Scott called “a great first step” and a “huge win” for business owners, the plan will take some businesses off the corporate tax rolls. Though that falls far short of the tax rate cut he wanted, Scott pledged that he will continue to push for more, and said getting a reduced version was “part of the legislative process.”

“The House and Senate budget committees have produced a budget that meets my core principles,” Scott said in a post-Cabinet availability with reporters. “The business tax cut is a huge win for business owners in Florida. It’s a great first step toward phasing out the business tax over seven years.”

Legislative budget chiefs Sen. JD Alexander and Rep. Denise Grimsley announced the pact Tuesday morning after nearly all-night negotiations between the chambers to bring the budget in for a landing, a difficult task as they faced a $3.8 billion shortfall.

“This has been a remarkable year for all the wrong reasons,” said Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told members following the budget announcement.

The last major sticking point was in the health and human services area, but several issues came together on that to greatly reduce the likelihood of an overtime session.

Alexander also told reporters Tuesday morning that an agreement was at hand over expanding the use of managed care to serve the state’s 2 million Medicaid recipients.

The budget deal includes a total of almost $700 million in Medicaid rate cuts for hospitals and nursing homes. Of that, hospitals took a $510 million hit, as they absorbed a 12 percent cut. But lawmakers spared some other big ticket programs from cuts, including adult mental health and substance abuse treatment and the Medically Needy program, which serves people who have debilitating illnesses but don’t qualify for Medicaid.


[UPDATE] 5-3 9:38am -

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- The Florida Legislature's deadline is
drawing near for reaching a budget deal.

Legislative leaders must resolve differences between the House
and Senate on Tuesday or forget about an on-time finish to the
annual 60-day legislative session on Friday.

Tuesday is the deadline because the Florida Constitution
requires a 72-hour waiting period before a vote can be taken after
a compromise budget hits lawmaker's desks.

House and Senate budget leaders Monday blamed each other for
their inability to reach accord.

The key differences were over health and human service spending.

Failure to get a deal Tuesday could mean extending the session
to Saturday or next week.

The final budget is expected to top $67 billion with nearly $4
billion in spending cuts.


Gov. Rick Scott once again said Wednesday that he was confident that lawmakers would eventually approve his plan to begin phasing out the corporate income tax before they leave Tallahassee next week. Legislative leaders once again all but said Scott wouldn’t get it.

In what is shaping up as one of the more intriguing back-and-forths between the new governor and the Legislature, Scott continued what has been a daily refrain that, despite all signs to the contrary, his proposals would find new life soon enough.

“We have a great speaker. We have a great Senate president,” Scott said. “They believe the same way I do that tax cuts are important to get our economy going again. So I’m convinced that we’ll have them.”

Still, no such move appeared forthcoming as lawmakers began to huddle in House-Senate conference committee aimed at banging out agreements between the two chambers’ versions of the spending plan.

Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chairs the conference committee handling tax issues, compared Scott’s drive for the tax cuts with one of his personal goals.

“I continue to express confidence that I will lose 20 pounds,” he said after the committee’s original meeting.

Asked what that might mean about the realism of the governor’s hopes, Gaetz said: “I had a salad for dinner last night.”

The agreement on the broad contours of a budget deal reached earlier this week by House and Senate leaders call for $136.1 million for economic development and tax cuts, but only $30 million of that is recurring.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he did expect tax relief and perhaps a rollback of some of the fee increases lawmakers approved in 2009. But the corporate income plan was notably missing from his list of possible targets: driver’s license fees, research and development tax cuts and a back-to-school sales tax holiday.

“I’ve had very few people in my career come to me and say the reason why they did not come to the state of Florida is because of the corporate tax rate,” he said. “But the governor, again, is an equal partner, and we want to try to help him along in his process with his priorities.”

Lawmakers were close to a deal on some of the tax-cut provisions after an evening meeting of the committee handling those issues.

Haridopolos said that the size of the relief offered by lawmakers would likely be more than $30 million in recurring money, though he didn’t specify how much. He noted that lawmakers were initially skeptical about their ability to do any tax cuts in the session, focusing instead on closing a $3.75 billion budget shortfall without raising taxes.

“If we can get to some tax relief, we’d be very pleased with our progress,” Haridopolos said.

But the Senate president said that even without a deal on the business tax, which was one of the central planks of Scott’s economic plan in his 2010 campaign, the governor could consider his first session a success when it came to gaining ground on his campaign pledges: To set Florida apart from other mega-states like California and Texas in terms of its economic development climate.

“I think his No. 1 campaign promise is to be seen as the most business friendly state in the country,” Haridopolos said.


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 27, 2011 - Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida -

A day after angry barbs traded between the House and Senate seemed likely to derail the session’s scheduled ending next week, legislative leaders announced a deal on the broad contours of a budget that could allow them to wrap up business on time.

The deal, which calls for $22.7 billion in general revenue, sweeps $528.6 million from trust funds; sets aside just $30 million in recurring revenue for tax cuts; and sets the stage for asking state employees to contribute 3 percent of their income toward their pensions.

In a joint appearance on the House floor following the announcement, Senate President Mike Haridopolos lauded House Speaker Dean Cannon as “gracious, patient and a strong conservative” -- a day after the upper chamber’s budget chief said Cannon “has done everything but ... seeking a win-win for both chambers.”

On Tuesday, leaders said they were moving forward.

“Here’s to a successful ending,” said Cannon, R-Winter Park.

And lawmakers sounded optimistic that the session would end by May 6, something that will likely require conference committees that begin meeting Wednesday to hammer out a final agreement early next week.

“We’re going to our best to get out of here next Friday,” Haridopolos told reporters after his appearance with Cannon.

But the agreement heightened the chance of a clash with Gov. Rick Scott over the future of his corporate income tax cut. The $30 million in recurring general revenue for tax cuts and economic development, and the $106.1 million in nonrecurring funding, would not be enough to match Scott’s plans for the corporate tax.

Haridopolos said there was still room for some form of tax relief, though he didn’t specify what form those cuts would take. And Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, all but ruled out a large reduction in the tax.

“There’s some continued discussion about it, but I would tell you it’s not a significant priority for the Senate,” Alexander said. ‘If we were to do something, we would really look at small businesses and try to help them.”

As he has throughout the budget process, Scott remained upbeat about the prospects for a signature piece of the economic plan he rode to election in November.

“I’m confident, with the House and Senate that we have, that we’ll get tax reductions, because everybody understands that this is about jobs,” Scott said.

Alexander sounded higher on the prospects for reducing the property tax rates charged by the state’s water management districts, even though the agreement does not sweep the districts entirely under the budget, as the Senate had suggested.

“Whether we do it in the budget or the governor does it, I think you’re going to see a significant tax reduction for property owners related to water management districts,” Alexander said.

The agreement also boosts spending on human services by $875.3 million, closer to the House position, and slices spending for education more deeply than the Senate had proposed.

And it hews more closely to the House’s plan for retirement plans. The Senate had wanted a tiered system that would have asked employees to contribute differing portions of their income to pensions based on the size of their salaries. The House pushed an across-the-board 3-percent contribution.

“We’ve had substantial conversations around a flat 3 percent,” Alexander said.

Leaders were vague on what had prompted the breakthrough in the hours after Alexander pushed Cannon’s Supreme Court package through the Senate Budget Committee, then slammed the speaker in unusually blunt terms.

Alexander quipped that it was “the magic of the legislative process.”

After the joint appearance, Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said the two leaders had spoken by phone Monday evening, and that their personal relationship had helped secure a deal.

“Yesterday was an up and down day,” he conceded, “and our friendship really made the day a success.”


Troy Kinsey -

The Florida legislature has just ten days left in its two-month annual session. Lawmakers in the house and senate have yet to see eye to eye on the only issue they're constitutionally required to tackle, which is the budget. As the clock winds down, it looks like they're inching closer to an agreement. Mike Haridopolos' top Lieutenant on Monday accused House Speaker Dean Cannon of playing 'stunts' with Florida's budget. The comment threatened to throw the legislature into overtime. After a night of backroom deal-making, the house and senate are finally getting down to business on a compromise plan to cut four billion dollars in spending.

Haridopolos said "Yesterday was an up and down day, and our friendship really made the day a success, and I think we've always enjoyed a good relationship and I think hopefully we can continue to find a lot of success."

Meanwhile, Governor Scott is trumpeting enormous success in cutting the crime rate. It's fallen 6.7 percent, not bad given a weak economy.

Scott says "While we can't point to one single factor or set of factors that drive the crime rate, clearly we are moving in the right direction. We have strict laws and tough penalties in place." Outside the capitol, a massive rally in support of legislation that would expand Florida's charter school system. Critics complain it would be a drain on taxpayer funding for public schools.

Rep. Kelli Stargel said "Choice is the most important thing when it comes to education. Parents involved with their kids, that's what's going to make everybody successful in this process." It now appears Governor Scott's controversial plan to cut corporate income taxes may not be dead. Even though money is tight, Haridopolos says he's optimistic there will be lower taxes in the budget. For the second day in a row, the powerful senate budget committee has postponed a vote on a bill that would dramatically shrink the state-run insurance company.

Insiders say senate leaders are trying to reduce the rate hikes citizens property insurance would be required to implement beginning next year.

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