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    State budget and redistricting in play as leaders joust

    Amendments in the Senate move the two chambers closer on some spending. Districts for Congress also remain unsettled.

    By LUCY MORGAN and ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 19, 2002


    TALLAHASSEE -- House and Senate leaders hope to end their political chess match this week with a series of moves over taxes, spending and redistricting.

    As late as Monday night, Senate President John McKay surprised his colleagues across the rotunda and Gov. Jeb Bush by taking up the budget and adding 20 amendments that appear to be a peace offering to the House.

    The amendments bring the House and Senate closer on education spending but widen the gulf on social services spending, according to the two senators who handle those areas.

    McKay then postponed a final vote for 72 hours, a move intended to fulfill a constitutional requirement that lawmakers wait that long before signing off on the budget.

    It also means that if the House wants to adjourn on time Friday, it must accept the budget and not amend it further.

    "If you want to get out on time, that is what you have to do," McKay said.

    A spokeswoman for House Speaker Tom Feeney said McKay's maneuver was not part of a deal between the two chambers and that Feeney would have to review the amendments before making a decision.

    Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan spent the day shuffling among the House, Senate and his own office as he tried to work out differences before the session ends.

    Brogan said chances are good that legislators can work out differences over redistricting and a reorganized state Cabinet.

    On redistricting, the House plans to accept the Senate's version of Senate districts and the Senate the House version of House districts. Still unresolved: congressional districts.

    Drawing new congressional districts is more difficult because Speaker Tom Feeney and other lawmakers want to run for Congress. Late Monday, the Senate produced a new plan that is closer to what Feeney wants, but additional negotiations are certain.

    As for the budget, senators leaving the chamber floor expressed hope that their amendments would get everyone home soon.

    "I think the table is set if they want to eat," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. He said that one amendment to increase Medicaid payments to Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital is of interest to House Appropriations chief Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami. Another amendment would funnel $50-million to Bush's technology initiative, Latvala said.

    "There is an effort under way to try and make this budget acceptable to (the House)," added Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

    While the amendments add about $16-million to the already $200-million by which the Senate outspends the House in social services, the technology amendment narrows the gap in education spending, said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg. But differences in how much to spend on public schools still exist, he added. The House plan totals about $48.5-billion, while the Senate totals about $48.8-billion.

    "We have no sense if they will take it. If they have sense, they will take it," Sullivan said.

    If the House doesn't accept the plan, which McKay plans to have on their desks by this morning, it will mean overtime for the Legislature.

    The budget is all but certain to be unfinished on Friday because the Constitution requires a 72-hour waiting period before a final vote is taken. That means a final version approved by both chambers would have to be on legislative desks late today.

    That's virtually impossible.

    Lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol seem unconcerned about reaching agreement on a budget, partly because the session began in January instead of the usual March. The fiscal year doesn't start until July 1, and budgets are not usually completed until early May. In 1992, the last year redistricting was an issue, the budget was not completed until mid-July.

    Brogan says he hopes some sort of tax reform will be part of the budget. But House and Senate leaders disagree over what constitutes tax reform.

    Until Monday, Feeney had been openly critical of McKay's leadership, but he toned down the rhetoric late Monday in the wake of a reportedly heated telephone call from McKay on Friday.

    "I'm taking care of the House now," Feeney said, repeatedly refusing to criticize McKay and the Senate. "The House is organized and taking care of business."

    As if to reinforce the point, the House ended Monday with a loud rendition of Takin' Care of Business by Bachman-Turner Overdrive.

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    From the Times state desk