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    Budget discord may endanger major bills

    Spending offers swing back and forth between the House and Senate, but accord eludes the day.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 25, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - With time slipping away and every big issue unsettled, state lawmakers are struggling to avoid a political meltdown.

    Their biggest problem: the state budget.

    The House and Senate traded spending offers all day Thursday, and hopes for a deal rose and fell almost hourly. But the day ended with a fresh round of insults, raising the prospect that other major legislation could be jeopardized.

    The Senate pressured the House to agree to $475-million more in spending or half of the $950-million increase senators demanded earlier. House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, described the search for millions from higher fines on drunken drivers and fund shifts as "trying to feed the beast in the Senate."

    Byrd accused senators of stalling so they can marshal support for new taxes.

    "I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday," Byrd said. "If they drag this out a couple of months, they can try to gin up people who want more government spending."

    Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, pleaded for time to cut a deal with Byrd by today.

    "This is sort of like a roller coaster, and I know you feel it," King told senators at one point. "With me, it's been up and down in the last 72 hours, to the point where you smile one minute and then you hold your head in your hands and say what now?"

    With no budget deal in sight, King said it is almost certain the Legislature will not adjourn on time. The 60-day session is scheduled to end a week from today.

    As budget talks dragged on, the House labored to pass the rest of its agenda, including the death knell for a program that pays for hundreds of arts and cultural programs.

    The House gave preliminary approval to wiping out grants that pay for programs, from ballet to children's theater, and using $20-million from the $27-million program to balance its budget.

    Democrats called it an "unconscionable" attack on the arts, and even U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris, R-Sarasota, who championed the arts as Secretary of State, was dismayed that lawmakers were ending a system that she said works well and boosts tourism.

    "We had the model program," Harris said. "Obviously I'm concerned."

    The state now sends $2.4-million to cultural programs in Pinellas and $2-million to Hillsborough. The Pinellas recipients include Florida International Museum, St. Petersburg Museum of History, Salvador Dali Museum and Beach Art Center.

    But bipartisanship prevailed on a major health care issue. The House passed a bill to extend coverage for 27,000 Medically Needy recipients for two more months, to July 1, by spending $11-million in proceeds from a lawsuit.

    Democrats first came up with the idea, and Byrd seized on it.

    The House attached the Medically Needy provision to a bill that contains another bipartisan priority, a prescription drug benefit for seniors, and sent it (SB 2322) back to the Senate. But King said Thursday that the state doesn't have the $11-million that would require, leaving the program still in limbo.

    "I don't care who gets the credit. I don't want to see people dying while we're "tightening our belts' and governing by cliche," said Rep. Suzanne Kosmas, D-New Smyrna Beach.

    Byrd ended the day with a long speech to the House membership, praising them for refusing to bend to Senate pressure to raise taxes or allow slot machines at race tracks.

    "It really kind of boils down to what is your political philosophy, and how tall are you willing to stand for it?" Byrd said. House Republicans answered with a standing ovation.

    - Times staff writers Lucy Morgan and Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

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