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    Senate budget looking more like House's

    But some major differences remain, and tension between the chambers may make compromises difficult.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 15, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Senate finally took up its budget Thursday, tentatively passing a $48.8-billion package that inches it closer to a spending agreement with the House.

    But there are still large differences in the two plans and few lawmakers are predicting an easy landing. The Senate is expected to take a final vote next week. The Legislature is scheduled to adjourn a week from today.

    "They seem to want to keep spending," said Rep. Sandy Murman, the Tampa Republican in charge of social services spending in the House. Not including federal matching funds, the Senate outspends the House in social services by about $200-million, Murman said. The House passed its $48.5-billion budget last week.

    The Senate added a surprise amendment Thursday to give state workers a $600 pay increase or 2.5 percent, whichever is greater. Neither the House plan nor the budget recommended by Gov. Jeb. Bush includes that. The Senate later rescinded the raises for Bush and Cabinet members.

    But the biggest sticking point may be a last-minute maneuver by the House to pass a roughly $500-million corporate tax break, which Bush is expected to sign. The Senate passed the bill last month, before a change in federal law had the effect of turning it into a tax break. (Story, 1B.)

    Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, successfully sought a budget amendment that takes the money from public education unless another source is found, which could force the House and Bush to choose a tax break at the expense of schools.

    Still left are disagreements over how to fund parts of the education budget, said Sullivan, who is in charge of Senate schools spending. But he and Rep. Evelyn Lynn, the Ormond Beach Republican who handles House education spending, have already narrowed down differences in their plans. "We'll all end up loving each other in the end," he said.

    Murman also has begun meeting with her Senate counterpart, Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami, in advance of the traditional conference committee that works out budget differences. "We haven't worked anything out yet because I haven't been given any money" to negotiate with, Murman said.

    But some senators said the session-long tension over tax reform among Senate President John McKay, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Bush did not bode well for a smooth settlement. "The conference is going to be very difficult," said Senate Democratic Leader Tom Rossin.

    McKay said it's "premature" to talk about the conference committee, because the Senate won't pass a budget until early next week.

    But Feeney complained that he has to deal with a Senate that was "in meltdown."

    "I'm waiting for a leader to emerge," Feeney said.

    -- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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