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    Florida budget? Not from this session

    Legislators decide an agreement is out of reach, and that blocks many major issues related to the spending plan.

    By ALISA ULFERTS and STEVE BOUSQUET
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 30, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - In the biggest legislative meltdown in a decade, Florida lawmakers Tuesday conceded defeat in their attempt to agree on a state budget, leaving other major work hanging in the balance.

    It is the second year in a row the Legislature has been forced into a special session to pass a budget.

    The session unraveled late in the day. "I want you all to know I gave it all I had," Senate President Jim King told the Senate. "Many of you thought I gave too much."

    The failure threatens dozens of other issues linked to the budget, from the constitutional amendment reducing class sizes to medical malpractice.

    The 60-day session ends Friday and lawmakers have until then to pass other legislation. But the obvious rancor between King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd makes compromise nearly impossible.

    Stunned lobbyists watched on large TV monitors as King, R-Jacksonville, announced he was ending budget talks, then scrambled to save their bills.

    Some lawmakers braced for more problems ahead.

    "This is bad," said House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-West Miami. "I don't think it is going to become any easier to do."

    Byrd, R-Plant City, favored extending the session until a budget deal could be reached. But leaving now gives the Senate more time to stir the public against deep spending cuts proposed by the House.

    With so little accomplished, voters could begin questioning the ability of Republicans to govern, acknowledged former House Speaker John Thrasher. "That's going to be an issue," Thrasher said.

    Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said he was "frustrated" by the legislative crash.

    "Given the progress earlier this week, I was cautiously optimistic that we might finalize the budget during session," Bush said in a prepared statement. "Clearly, that optimism was unwarranted."

    The budget is the one thing the state constitution requires lawmakers to do each year. Byrd, King and Bush now must agree on a limited agenda for a special session, or series of sessions, a process that typically involves backstage power struggles.

    Bush reminded lawmakers they face a more pressing deadline: cuts in the state's Medically Needy program that take effect Thursday.

    King and Byrd promised to avert the cuts, and the state agency that administers the program issued a statement Tuesday night assuring worried participants the program would continue.

    But that promise is in question.

    Byrd faulted King for shutting down negotiations, saying the House was willing to extend the session to keep talks going.

    "We are ready to move forward," Byrd said. "We are the worker bees of the Florida Legislature, and we are certainly willing to keep working."

    Despite making some headway, Byrd and King spent days communicating largely in writing.

    King said he tried unsuccessfully for several hours to reach Byrd to say he planned to end the talks before going public.

    "The last response we got was, "He knows the president is trying to get him, but he's busy right now,' " King said.

    One last obstacle was Byrd's demand for $45-million for an Alzheimer's research center he founded at the University of South Florida. King balked, suggesting other institutes get a shot at the money.

    "I need a commitment of $20-million ... and $25-million recurring GR (general revenue) for research for the Alzheimer's institute," Byrd wrote in their last exchange of offers.

    King insisted no single issue prompted him to pull the plug. Instead, it was Byrd's wish for the two of them to negotiate key elements of the budget rather than leaving that to joint committees that meet in public. The committee members know much more about the individual programs, King said.

    "I really, truly, felt we were sacrificing the basic principles of the Senate," King said.

    It's likely that a special session will be required to pass myriad major bills, such as measures to solve the medical malpractice crisis.

    "If they can't get the budget done, how can they get something as complex as medical malpractice done?" asked Florida Medical Association lobbyist Sandy Mortham.

    Other major bills already were showing signs of unraveling.

    A measure to shift court costs to the state, as voters decided in 1998, fell victim to a last-minute demand by the House to halve a $40 fee that public defenders get, said Sen. Rod Smith, D-Alachua. Lawmakers need to pass laws carrying out the amendment so they can accurately budget for next year.

    "It fell apart over nothing," Smith said.

    Still, the collapse buys King and his fellow moderate Senate Republicans time to generate public outrage over the House spending plan. The Senate wanted to spend $1-billion more than the House. As school boards and local governments begin building their own budgets, the reasoning goes, they will complain about state spending cuts.

    School board members from throughout Florida, including Hillsborough, descended Tuesday on the Capitol to complain about the House budget. They predicted that without a lot more money, they will be forced to cut seventh-period classes and lay off teachers' aides, assistant principals and guidance counselors, and possibly curtail sports programs.

    Some school board members showed their anger with buttons that said: "Stack 'em deep and teach 'em cheap."

    But House leaders predicted they will return more determined not to raise taxes. "They're going to come back emboldened," Rubio said.

    Democrats were quick to point out which party was to blame.

    "I'm not aware of a session that has been so unproductive," said House Minority Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine. "Citizens of Florida deserve better. To come away after 60 days with nothing is inexcusable."

    While it's hardly the first time lawmakers have failed to agree on a state budget during their regular session, their failure to resolve nearly all the major issues facing them is highly unusual.

    "I've never really seen it get to the point where you couldn't talk," said Senate Majority Leader Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island.

    Tuesday's collapse recalled 1992, when lawmakers, faced with serious budget shortfalls and redistricting, met repeatedly before completing work on a budget and other important issues. State government actually shut down for a few days in July until the budget was finished.

    Special sessions are repeatedly priced at about $40,000 a day, but the figure actually varies between about $10,000 and $70,000 a day, depending on how long lawmakers stay in Tallahassee.

    The longest special session on record - more than 500 days - was the cheapest. In 1955, then-Gov. LeRoy Collins called lawmakers in to redistrict the House and Senate to give more representation to urban areas. The rural legislators who dominated at the time convened, recessed and went home, where they remained until their terms expired in late 1956.

    - Times staffers Lucy Morgan and Michael Sandler contributed to this report.

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