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Lawmakers must deal with dueling budgets

A move by House Speaker Tom Feeney leaves legislators pondering competing plans as the clock ticks.

By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 20, 2002

A move by House Speaker Tom Feeney leaves legislators pondering competing plans as the clock ticks.

TALLAHASSEE -- Evidently, House Speaker Tom Feeney didn't like the Senate budget package he found sitting on his desk Tuesday morning.

Because before most representatives even had a chance to read it, Feeney had already ordered a new House budget printed and sent to the Senate.

Now, lawmakers are left to shuffle through the competing budgets as the clock continues to tick on a 72-hour cooling-off period before either plan can become final. Capitol observers say it's simply the next step in a budget showdown between Feeney and Senate President John McKay.

"So we have competing, dueling three-day amendments," joked Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

The amended House budget would spend $313-million more in general revenue than originally planned, but still $519-million less than the Senate budget, according to House budget chief Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami.

The new House plan would spend $113.7-million less for social services than the Senate plan -- compared with about $200-million less before. And it would spend $307-million less for public schools than the Senate budget -- coincidentally, almost the same amount the Legislature cut from public schools during last year's special session.

It would spend $45-million more than the Senate plan for general government, such as for roads, but $67-million less in the criminal justice arena, Lacasa said.

House members say their numbers are lower overall because the Senate is counting on money that isn't likely to materialize. Feeney said the House came up with a new budget because it feared that the Senate was moving too slowly and because it wanted to add in a windfall that state economists announced earlier this month. The House plans to wait until the Senate ships over its budget plan after a final vote on Friday and then gut that bill and paste on the amended House version before shipping it back.

If the Legislature adjourns before the budget is settled, Gov. Jeb Bush will have to call a special session. But the two sides aren't that far apart, Feeney said.

"I hope we're fairly close on education and social services spending and other key issues," Feeney said. "I don't think out of a $49-billion budget the numerical differences are that great." Still, some senators said Feeney's decision to amend a budget that the House had already approved and sent to the Senate -- which hadn't sent it back yet -- was so unusual they weren't even sure it was constitutional.

"Since none of us has ever walked in these waters, I have no idea how deep it is or what's in it," said Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

Many agreed that Feeney and McKay will have to work out the differences themselves if the Legislature is to adjourn on time Friday.

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