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Budget rift looms as special session nears end

The House and Senate are about $80-million apart for basic school spending as the final full week of the special session begins.

Published May 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and Senate President Jim King showed up at the Capitol on Sunday to rally lawmakers facing a week of arduous budget negotiations.

The similarities ended there.

Byrd appeared formal in a suit and tie; King, relaxed in a sport coat and loafers. Byrd addressed only House members, encouraging them to stick to the conservative principles that have defined the House under his leadership. King addressed both House members and senators, urging them not to think of themselves as members of one chamber but as negotiators trying to reach a compromise.

Byrd, a Plant City Republican, got respectful applause. King, a Jacksonville Republican, got laughs.

The differences between the dress, manner and speeches of the two leaders underscore why key legislators found themselves in the state Capitol on Sunday, midway through a special session aimed at writing a state budget.

After their regular 60-day session imploded in spectacular defeat when it ended May 2, each side accused the other of intractability. As the special session called by Gov. Jeb Bush heads into its final full week, there are still major differences.

While they are in the same ballpark for spending on public schools, House and Senate negotiators have yet to agree on a number.

They are about $80-million apart for basic school spending, with the Senate showing a per student spending increase of 5.16 percent and the House calling for a 4.62 percent increase.

Many large school districts, including Pinellas and Hillsborough, still are bracing for millions of dollars in cuts. Local school officials say the level of spending contemplated by the Legislature won't enable them to maintain staffing and programs at the level they are now because of higher insurance premiums and other costs.

Pinellas County schools lobbyist Steve Swartzel is hoping the Senate prevails. Pinellas already has approved spending cuts based on the Senate budget.

"Anything less than that means we need more cuts," Swartzel said.

Although the House and Senate approved separate $52-billion spending plans Friday, they remain at odds over numerous other issues. Those include the $45-million Byrd wants for an Alzheimer's center at the University of South Florida, the $120-million Bush wants for his school reward program and the fate of a sales tax holiday. The House budget includes all those items; the Senate budget includes none of them.

What the conference committees can't resolve by Tuesday afternoon will be referred to the budget chiefs of both chambers, Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, and Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers. What they can't agree on will be handled by King and Byrd.

By Friday, the budget must be printed and distributed to lawmakers, who must wait 72 hours before taking a final vote. That vote is scheduled for May 27, the final day of the special session.

In a speech resembling a sermon, Byrd reminded House members that they were the optimists because they believe the state's needs can be met without raising taxes. Using references to Dr. Seuss and Ronald Reagan, Byrd said optimists should prevail over the pessimists, a thinly veiled reference to moderate Senate Republicans who have called for more revenue.

"As optimists you will see what is right with our budget," Byrd said, "not what is wrong."

"The citizens have done their part," he said. "They've sent us more of their money than ever before. I charge you to be good stewards of their money."

King reminded House and Senate negotiators that he has witnessed budget conferences for 18 years. He warned them that if they approached the budget talks with the idea that one side must prevail over the other, "then there's no sense in being here."

"All I ask is be open-minded, be fair, take deep breaths," King said, adding, "Go forth and do good things."

[Last modified May 19, 2003, 04:55:27]

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