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Legislature

Speaker's hand very much in budget talks

Byrd's intense involvement in joint negotiations is slowing things down, some say.

By ALISA ULFERTS and STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 20, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Budget talks got off to a rocky start Monday, with House members postponing and rescheduling education negotiations until giving up and leaving for the day.

Their failure to get things moving quickly appears due in part to House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's intense involvement in the negotiations. He is personally overseeing the details of the House's counteroffer to the Senate at a level unheard of by past House speakers.

"I'm trying to get approval from the speaker to get something worked out tonight," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, who oversees education spending for the House. "He is very much a hands-on, detail-oriented individual, much to his credit."

Lawmakers are midway through a special session to pass a budget. Both chambers have approved their separate spending plans and now are meeting in a series of joint House-Senate conference committees to work out the differences.

Byrd's preference for working things out at his level rather than allowing the lawmakers he appointed to budget committees handle things is part of the reason Senate President Jim King called off budget talks in the final days of the Legislature's regular 60-day session. King said those lawmakers who are closest to the programs should be the ones to make decisions, and only after they fail to resolve the differences should he and Byrd step in.

But House Majority Leader Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, said the delay in the House's response to the initial Senate education spending offer was simply due to the House's desire to make a serious offer.

"This will come in for a landing," Rubio predicted.

Education accounts for more than a third of the state's $52-billion budget, and it contains many of the controversial, big-ticket items the two chambers are fighting over, such as tuition hikes for universities and the $45-million Byrd wants for an Alzheimer's research center.

But the House's failure to respond to the Senate's offer after 24 hours prompted some senators to question whether House members were simply following Byrd's orders.

"I think it's not taking it out of school to say they are having a difficult time deciding who is making the decisions," said Sen. Debbie Wasserman Shultz, D-Weston, the Senate appropriations vice chairwoman.

But Simmons denied that Byrd had usurped his authority.

"I've been given a great deal of flexibility. ... What we're trying to do is ensure that our education system is properly funded and he wants to have a hand in assuring that," Simmons said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 20, 2003, 02:15:52]


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