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    Budget talks: all bluster, no deal

    House and Senate leaders trade offers and accusations, but remain millions apart as the session spins into its final days.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 24, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE -- Leaders of the Florida House and Senate began the first round of budget negotiations Wednesday but still can't agree on a bottom line even as they worried that time is running out.

    House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King exchanged written offers and counter offers, ending up $130-million apart by early Wednesday evening.

    "This process is not eBay, and I hope the speaker understands that we cannot go any lower without looking like we are capitulating," King said.

    Without an agreement by noon today, King told senators that the budget will not be finished by May 2, the scheduled end of the 60-day session. If that happens, lawmakers could extend the session or call a special session later.

    King and Byrd began negotiations $1.4-billion apart, with some $950-million of that in unspecified higher taxes sought by the Senate. King sent over the first offer Tuesday, offering to spend just $500-million more than the $52.2-million in the House budget.

    But his offer came with a string attached: half the $500-million had to be a new source of money and the other half from sources acceptable to the Senate, which would limit a planned raid on trust funds.

    "This is a good faith effort to meet you more than halfway," King wrote Byrd.

    Several hours later Byrd responded: No deal. He countered with $345-million in increased spending but only if the money could be found without eliminating tax exemptions. That leaves trust funds or increases in fees, penalties and fines.

    "Florida has a vibrant economy and we can live within our means, as evidenced by the House budget," Byrd wrote.

    No way, King said. His final offer: $475-million more, half from new money.

    "The Senate cannot do more than this, and really should not be expected to. We have reduced our position by 50 percent," King wrote to Byrd. He denied to reporters that the Senate was caving to the House in agreeing to shave so much off its budget, saying that was the price of adjourning on time.

    Byrd accused senators of "get-rich-quick schemes" and manufacturing a budget crisis to justify more spending.

    "Some people have an insatiable desire to spend more money than they have," Byrd said.

    Senators have decried a budget that would cut schools and human services, eliminate court staff, raise tuition as much as 12.5 percent, cut cultural grants by more than half and eliminate a cost-of-living raise for state employees.

    Byrd said King's was simply reducing the size of the Senate's "fantasy surplus" that didn't exist in the first place. "The only way to meet someone halfway in a fantasy surplus is to tax someone," Byrd said.

    Byrd is willing to pass a bill increasing fines for traffic infractions and drunken driving, which would raise about $117-million a year.

    -- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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