Amid impasses, clock ticks on session's fate
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- The last time the bosses of the Legislature cut a deal to end the session, both men showed their cards.
A year ago, everybody knew the endgame: House Speaker Tom Feeney craved a congressional seat and Senate President John McKay wanted a face-saving review of tax exemptions.
As the 2003 session enters its final two weeks, the faces have changed, the circumstances are different, and the outcome is far less certain.
Five months after taking charge amid hostility, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King are still circling each other warily. The powerful Republicans continue jabbing at each other, probing for weak spots.
As the 60-day session nears an end, lawmakers are under growing pressure to find solutions for three insurance matters: medical malpractice, workers' compensation and fraud involving uninsured motorists. They also have to decide how to implement the voters' will to ban smoking in workplaces and reduce class sizes.
But their biggest hurdle is the budget, the only thing they must finish and the one issue that stirs emotions like no other. The two sides are $950-million apart in new revenue. The difference can't be split easily because Byrd opposes more spending.
Byrd has Gov. Jeb Bush on his side as he leads a band of Republican stalwarts who say $52-billion is enough to meet Florida's needs. King heads a Senate convinced that more money is needed to protect students and the sick.
"I'm not sure there is an endgame when you're this far apart," says a longtime lobbyist, J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich. "Somebody has to cry Uncle."
Both leaders have some personal wants -- for Byrd, $45-million for Alzheimer's research; for King, expanded gambling -- but whether they are willing to give in return is unclear.
Will King fold? House leaders hope so. King suggested as much two weeks ago. As a unanimous Senate rallied around a bigger budget in what amounted to a huge vote of confidence in King, he wavered when he could have drawn a line in the sand.
"I don't want to get into a protracted fight that extends the session beyond where it should be, simply to throw grenades at each other," King told reporters April 3. "I'm not saying that I want to wiggle, but I also know the reality of a 2-to-1 battle."
King's support for more money puts him at odds with his hometown newspaper, the Florida Times-Union. The paper, which editorially reflects the views of Jacksonville's conservative business community, warned King against "following the tax-and-spend policies of the liberal Democrats and kowtowing to the trial lawyers.'
Last year, he cited a tough editorial in the paper as a reason for deserting Senate President John McKay's tax reform crusade. The review of tax exemptions approved by the Legislature at McKay's insistence was later tossed out by the Florida Supreme Court.
This year, Byrd already has jettisoned the Senate's biggest tax idea, a $675-million-a-year hike in real estate transfer fees. Before that, a House committee killed King's other revenue idea: slot machines at 32 parimutuel facilities.
"When Johnnie says 'Live within our means,' he really believes it," says lobbyist John Thrasher, a former House speaker. "He's a true conservative. That's what you're dealing with, and it's a philosophical deal, one that ultimately the governor's going to have to come in and broker."
Although their differences are clear, neither Byrd nor King has publicly demanded anything specific as his price for adjournment. To do so gives the other guy added leverage. Not doing so restricts the give-and-take needed for solutions.
"It's hard to make a deal when you don't want anything that badly," said Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, the House majority leader and a key Byrd lieutenant.
King's strategy appears to be to hold out as long as he can, buying time in the hope that enough people will pressure the House to change its position.
Some groups are doing just that. School superintendents endorse the Senate budget, and a nonprofit group headed by a 21-year-old college student is running radio ads, criticizing the House for cutting the Bright Futures scholarship and raiding trust funds.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Harry Lee Anstead has urged lawyers to contact lawmakers and stop cuts to the "muscle and bone" of the trial courts. He did not distinguish between the House and Senate spending plans.
Because the two chambers are far apart on some other big issues -- medical malpractice, reducing class sizes, implementing the antismoking initiative, among others -- a lot of potential bargaining chips are on the table. And then there's the budget itself.
"The budget to us is the key ingredient," King said. "That's really the leverage that we have, and we're going to use that leverage as best we can."
For the House, it means $100-million for tax cuts, $315-million for teacher bonuses and $45-million for Alzheimer's research at University of South Florida.
The Senate's bigger budget spends $251-million more on schools and $100-million for state employee pay raises, and seeks a smaller tuition increase for state university students than the House. But there's no money for the Senate's wishes.
The House more aggressively raids budget categories known as trust funds, converting money earmarked for houses or road construction to day-to-day costs. The Senate wants to increase tolls on the Florida Turnpike, Sunshine Skyway bridge and other roads this summer -- a year earlier than planned -- to make up the difference. But the House is balking.
"This is the point in the session when you start making a list of the things you want passed," said lawyer and lobbyist Curt Kiser, who represented Pinellas County in the Senate and House for more than two decades.
Byrd and King must move fast, and on the budget, they have less time. A provision in the state Constitution requires that the budget be presented to lawmakers by April 29, or 72 hours before the scheduled May 2 adjournment.
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