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$1.4-billion divides lawmakers

The two chambers' budget proposals are $1.4-billion apart, and the leaders are not budging on taxes or spending.

Published April 9, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - It was a surreal day in the state Capitol.

Senate Republicans, who rose to power by opposing taxes, joined hands with Democrats in a call for nearly $1-billion in higher taxes.

House Republicans castigated Senate Republicans during a highly unusual session called to kill a proposal the House said would make it harder for people to own a home. Then, to make ends meet, the House emptied a fund for affordable housing.

By day's end, the House and Senate adopted two very different budgets that take opposite sides on the question of whether Florida collects enough taxes to meet the state's needs.

A divided House said yes. A unanimous Senate said no.

Gov. Jeb Bush likened it to Alice in Wonderland.

With all the gamesmanship and heated rhetoric, the budget gridlock appeared to worsen.

The House budget does not raise taxes but has deep cuts and siphons $642-million from special accounts known as trust funds, which even some GOP lawmakers oppose. The Senate budget has smaller cuts but relies on $1.4-billion from unspecified revenue - $950-million in new state money and the rest from federal matching funds. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd called the Senate's additional revenue "pixie dust."

"The road is as unsure as any of you can imagine," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said after the Senate's 40-0 vote.

In a typical year, Tuesday's action would lead to budget negotiations. But the $1.4-billion gap is huge. The two sides can't even agree on a bottom line.

Senators have complained that the House's budget is confusing, even intentionally so. And without the House's working papers, which senators have requested but not received, the two plans can't easily be reconciled.

In the House, Byrd led the House in an elaborate funeral for a proposed Senate tax on new and used home sales to build schools. It was Byrd's way of reinforcing a message of no new taxes, and one Democratic lawmaker likened it to a "public hanging."

The target was a Senate bill that replaces existing school impact fees on new homes with a statewide fee paid by buyers of both new and existing homes. The proposal by Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, would add about $700 to the price of a home, producing an estimated $675-million a year.

The bill passed through one Senate committee but no House version was ever filed, which means it had virtually no chance of becoming law. Byrd buried it anyway, on a 117-0 vote.

"This chamber is not interested in an honest policy debate," said House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles of St. Augustine. "Rather, I would characterize these proceedings as a carefully scripted and choreographed performance in front of the press gallery designed to send a message to our friends in the Senate."

For the first time in memory, House members were forced to vote on a budget without knowing how much more money each school district would receive, among the most sought-after information every session. Byrd's aides blamed a computer glitch.

The 81-36 House budget vote was along party lines. Three members did not vote and two Democrats, Will Kendrick of Carrabelle and Dwight Stansel of Wellborn, sided with Republicans.

"We are not throwing people under the bus," said Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa. "I think they can trust us now more than ever because we took a tough budget and made something out of it."

The House cuts aid to universities by $84-million but sets aside $100-million for tax cuts, including a continued phasing out of a tax on stock portfolios.

Three Republicans broke ranks with their party and opposed raiding an affordable housing fund: Heather Fiorentino of New Port Richey, Bill Galvano of Bradenton and Nancy Detert of Venice.

Byrd's extensive public relations operation was on display. The House viewed a video of a young couple explaining how hard it is to buy a home with existing taxes. The husband, Matt Barrentine, is a weatherman at WCTV, a local CBS affiliate.

Democrats cited a litany of problems: No overtime for state troopers. No new judges. Steep student tuition hikes. Continued waiting lists for services for the developmentally disabled. Trust-fund raids that create holes in future budgets.

"If you look at Florida's family finances, you'll see we're in serious trouble," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "We've maxed out the credit card and now we've raided the savings account."

Democrats warned that potential tuition hikes of 12.5 percent would risk the solvency of the popular prepaid college tuition program. Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, said program managers have assured him "it's not a problem."

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified April 9, 2003, 02:03:05]

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