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    Budget negotiations to continue privately

    State legislative leaders tentatively agree to its overall cost, but details still have to be worked out and the session lengthened.

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - Senate president Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd on Friday reached a tentative agreement on the size of the state budget and will spend the weekend negotiating the details behind closed doors.

    The unusual secrecy - budget negotiations usually are done in public committee meetings - is another twist in a session that has been marked by acrimony between the leaders of the two chambers.

    The seemingly endless budget wrangling has slowed every other major piece of legislation this year, from medical malpractice to workers' compensation to class size limits.

    The pace means lawmakers will extend the legislative session, which costs at least $40,000 a day, by several days, a week or even more.

    Most lawmakers returned home for the weekend, leaving Byrd, King and their budget experts to negotiate. King, R-Jacksonville, cautioned senators about the tentative nature of the budget deal.

    "There is still no agreed-upon deal," King told senators before the weekend break.

    Byrd and King agreed to spend $475-million more than the $52.2-billion the House passed in its budget. What they will decide this weekend is how much of that to spend on education, health care and other categories. Big ticket items to consider: the House's $315-million teacher pay plan; state health insurance costs; Gov. Jeb Bush's $120-million school recognition plan; Bright Futures costs; class size reduction; how much to sweep trust funds; and how much emergency cash to keep on hand.

    King predicted the session, which is scheduled to end Friday, will be extended at least a week. Byrd, R-Plant City, wouldn't be pinned down on the length of the extension.

    King repeated his wish Friday that as many of the negotiations as possible be handled by the joint House-Senate conference committees that meet in the open, instead of through private telephone conversations between the leaders.

    "I do not feel comfortable circumventing the process," King said.

    "I don't know everything about the minutia . . . to step in and make decisions about these programs," he added.

    But Byrd is not as wedded to the tradition of open conference committees, saying they are a tool that should help the Legislature but shouldn't be used if telephone calls will get things settled faster.

    "You don't let the rules get in the way," Byrd said. "In the end, things get bumped up" to the president and speaker, he said.

    Already, support for King's budget offer shows signs of erosion.

    Senate Democrats object to the degree to which the $475-million budget offer hinges on a series of traffic fine increases that they said will be born by people who can scarely feed their families.

    The so-called "new money" that Byrd agreed to included a $500 increase in the fee levied on drunken and reckless drivers and those who leave the scene of an accident.

    Moving violations penalties would jump by $50 and nonmoving violations by $20. Getting a license reinstated after suspension would increase by $50.

    "You're balancing this on the backs of people who can't afford it," said Senate Minority Leader Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton.

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