State budget negotiators reach agreement on all issues but one

Published April 29, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - State budget negotiators reached an agreement on most budget issues Saturday, leaving one issue for the House speaker and Senate president to hash out before the roughly $71-billion spending plan hits lawmakers' desks early next week.

The House and Senate budget negotiators worked out the remaining details on education funding and agreed to spend $62-million on an energy plan for the development and production of alternative fuels.

The House and Senate budgets now remain $500-million apart because of a discrepancy in the amount the chambers want to spend on transportation projects called Building Florida's Future. The Senate wants to spend the money to jump-start the cooling economy, but the House so far has balked at that philosophy.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, will need to resolve the issue by the beginning of next week.

There has been speculation that the outstanding issue could be used as a bargaining chip in negotiations over how to reduce property taxes, but the House budget chairman, Ray Sansom, R-Destin, denied that Saturday.

"The issue of property taxes is a stand-alone issue, " Sansom said. "I think people in Florida are concerned about property taxes. I think the House and Senate and governor want to see something done, and hopefully we'll have something done."

Before Saturday, the chambers had been $585-million apart on the transportation issue. But they agreed to spend $35-million for high-occupancy toll lanes on Interstate 95 in South Florida and $50-million for port expansions.

Negotiators also agreed to spend $81-million to help hospitals cover medical care for Medicaid recipients, the underinsured and the uninsured.

"The House made a convincing case for low-income pool money, " said state Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, the Senate's budget negotiator. "It certainly helps hospitals in the state of Florida. Many of them are in financial straits as it is."

The budget must be on state legislators' desks by Tuesday. By law, legislators have to wait 72 hours before voting on the budget. The session ends Friday.