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Lawmakers working on bottom line

House and Senate leaders agree to a spending limit and to let the committees work out the details.

Published May 12, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Lawmakers return to Tallahassee today to pick up the pieces of their failed session. Their main task: adopt a budget.

The special session is scheduled to end May 27, and Gov. Jeb Bush already has said he will call the quarrelling lawmakers back to the Capitol again - and again if that's what it takes.

The regular 60-day session ended earlier this month in spectacular failure after budget talks between House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King crashed. The result was that no major legislation made it to the governor.

Now, after a weeklong cooling off, Byrd and King have agreed on a bottom line to spend - a little more than $52-billion - and how much should go to education, health care and other categories. But they've had tentative deals before that disintegrated once they started mining the details.

Items that could trip up negotiations: Byrd's $35-million Alzheimer's center, Bush's $120-million school recognition money, the House's $315-million teacher pay plan, how much to empty out of which trust funds and whether to have a sales tax holiday.

A further complication: because they did not pass a bill to carry out the class-size reduction amendment voters approved in November, lawmakers will have to spell out instructions in the budget itself or muster a two-thirds vote in each chamber to take up the issue. One of the biggest differences between the two chambers' class-size bills was the House proposal to use vouchers to reduce class sizes.

And despite the deal, already King is predicting a return trip to Tallahassee this fall, after lawmakers have had time to see they did not give schools, local governments and sick poor people enough money.

"We're going to be back," said Senate budget chief Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.

Both sides are predicting a smoother special session than the regular one. "'The budget should fall into place like dominoes. . . . I believe it will go pretty quick," Byrd said Friday.

King was out of town Friday, but Pruitt added a caveat to Byrd's prediction.

"With all due respect to the presiding officers, as long as they stay out of it and let the conferees do their work, it will be fine," Pruitt said.

A series of joint conference committees will meet this week to decide how much of the money parceled to education, health care and other areas should be spent on specific programs. The items neither they nor Pruitt and his House counterpart, Fort Myers Republican Bruce Kyle, can agree on after several days are settled by King and Byrd. But it is the conference committees that have traditionally done most of the work.

It was Byrd's insistence on reversing that process - wanting King to agree with him on key programs at the outset rather than allowing the conference committees who know more about program details negotiate for funding - that helped derail budget talks during the regular session.

"The minute they stick their noses in it, it falls apart," Pruitt said.

When asked during the regular session why he wanted to negotiate budget details himself instead of leaving it to conference committees, Byrd said lawmakers shouldn't feel bound to follow the traditional way of doing things if it no longer served a purpose.

But this time he appears willing to let them do the work.

Even Bush has said the long-standing tradition of conference committees, which has worked for years, needs to be honored.

"There is a process in place," Bush said.

[Last modified May 12, 2003, 04:56:07]

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