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    With time short, Legislature has miles to go

    The budget, class sizes and medical malpractice top the list of unfinished business.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 17, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- The state Capitol is suddenly a very peaceful place: Lawmakers have gone home for the long holiday weekend, leaving every big decision unresolved with two weeks left in the 60-day session.

    The budget? The House and Senate haven't even met to talk about how they'll negotiate the $1.4-billion that divides them.

    Smaller class sizes? The two sides are miles apart on money.

    Medical malpractice? The House wants a $250,000 cap on damages for pain and suffering, but the Senate doesn't.

    And those are just the Big Three. As the clock ticks down, dozens of major policy issues are unsettled, from expanding school vouchers to Everglades restoration to raising phone rates.

    The two Republicans in charge of the agenda talked optimistically Wednesday about wrapping up the public's work on time. But the gulf between House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City and Senate President Jim King of Jacksonville seemed as wide as ever.

    Byrd again called on King to stop talking about higher taxes or more gambling and agree on a bottom line for the budget so the two sides can divvy up the money.

    But King, whose budget is pumped up with $950-million of extra money from unspecified taxes or fees, held out hope that Floridians would rise up against the House plan and support the Senate.

    "I would encourage you to take the pulse of your constituencies," King told senators as they adjourned Wednesday. "I'm not sure what lies ahead."

    The Senate released a side-by-side comparison of the two chambers' spending plans Wednesday that highlighted their different priorities, especially in education and health care. Byrd wasn't impressed.

    "Sooner or later, the Senate will have to come down to reality and appropriate the money that the citizens have given us," Byrd said.

    Some lawmakers have begun prodding the Capitol's most powerful political player, Gov. Jeb Bush, to start brokering deals.

    Bush is philosophically much closer to the House than the Senate, but the Senate's chief budget negotiator, Sen. Ken Pruitt of Port St. Lucie, said he implored Bush in a meeting on Wednesday to take a stronger role next week.

    Pruitt said he also reminded Bush that the budget Bush proposed in January would be impossible to enact today because taxes and tobacco settlement revenues have fallen below expectations by about $400-million.

    "I was trying to share with him that it's going to be very difficult for us to get there, based on the revenues we have today," Pruitt said.

    It was Pruitt's way of driving home the Senate message that the state needs more money, an idea Byrd rejects.

    The House's no-new-taxes budget is balanced through an array of new fees, higher property taxes and emptying once-sacred trust fund accounts.

    "We have enough money," Byrd said. "The concept that if we had a little more money, everything would be better, doesn't work."

    Democrats, a weak minority in the Legislature, strongly disagree.

    Democratic senators around the state have called news conferences at noon today in their districts to talk about the "potentially devastating" impact of budget proposals on poor people who rely on the state's Medically Needy program.

    The budget would require the program's 27,000 clients to live on no more than $450 a month for food, housing and other essentials, while spending the rest of their money on medication and other health care costs.

    After seven weeks, nearly 2,500 bills have been filed but only 11 have passed both chambers and gone to Gov. Jeb Bush, such as a bill fine-tuning operating rules for the new Cabinet. But they have passed 96 ceremonial resolutions, honoring the Super Bowl champion Bucs, "Take Your Dad to School Month" and "Polk County Legislative Day."

    In the end, Byrd and King can split the difference on a lot of issues.

    "Mechanically, we can still do this," King said. "I've been in this process sometimes when it looked like it was a hopeless morass, and within 24 hours it was a done deal and we were clapping ourselves on the back, singing Kumbaya."

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