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Special session called off
Legislators are so far apart on budget cuts, they see no point in meeting.
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published September 6, 2007
TALLAHASSEE - Unable to agree on how to cut more than $1-billion in spending, state legislative leaders Wednesday abruptly called off plans to hold a three-week special session later this month.
Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio issued a joint statement that downplayed differences while acknowledging the obvious.
"The common denominator for productive special sessions is an initial agreement on a framework for action," they said. "This is even more critical when dealing with the difficult actions associated with budget reductions."
The decision, made in private over a series of telephone calls, underscores a philosophical clash over how to make cuts and cause as little public backlash as possible.
What would have been the third special session of this year was to have begun Sept. 18, but had not yet been scheduled officially.
The ripple effect of a slack real estate market is forcing the state to reduce current year spending by $1.1-billion, or about 4 percent of general revenue from tax collections - chiefly the statewide 6 percent sales tax.
The Senate has insisted on across-the-board cuts in major spending areas, while the House wanted targeted spending cuts.
"Some very difficult decisions have to be made," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who oversees billions in spending as chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations. "What you have here is a difference of opinion, policywise, on how to go about doing it."
Gov. Charlie Crist, who preferred the House's targeted approach, was not pleased with the decision.
"He is very disappointed that the House and Senate could not reach agreement, and he will continue to work with the Legislature to get through this challenging task," spokeswoman Erin Isaac said.
For weeks, Crist has yielded control of the agenda to legislators, referring to them as "the appropriators." He said his goal was to shield public education and human services from cuts as much as possible, but those two areas swallow about two-thirds of the $71-billion budget.
Hours before the cancellation was announced, it was apparent Crist did not know the cancellation was coming. He was finalizing his budget-cutting recommendations to be submitted to lawmakers and declined to talk specifics.
"We'll let you know, but it's premature right now," Crist said of his list of suggested cuts.
He said his top priorities are classroom spending, public safety and "the most vulnerable among us."
The leader of the House's 43-member Democratic caucus blasted Republicans for failing to reach a consensus and for having discussions in private.
"We've got to stop arguing about the shape of the table and get into serious public discussion about our state's finances," said Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "I'm disappointed that we're canceling the session and equally disappointed that so much of what's happening is going on behind closed doors."
A legislative spokesman said Pruitt telephoned Rubio around midday Wednesday, and they agreed to put things on hold. A short time later, key staffers from the Senate and House briefed Crist's chief of staff, George LeMieux.
For all their talk about the need to live within the state's means, legislators view cutting the budget as one of their most thankless tasks.
The job is even trickier now than it used to be because of a voter-approved change to the state Constitution that limits to 3 percent the use of one-time funds to pay for ongoing programs, such as refunds or money carried over from previous years.
That gives lawmakers much less maneuvering room than before. Raiding so-called trust funds, like the road-building program that is supported by gasoline taxes, is no longer a viable option.
The cancellation of the session creates further uncertainty for Florida's no-fault car insurance system, which will automatically expire on Oct. 1 unless legislators take steps to continue it.
Canceling the session also gives advocates for threatened programs more time to plead their cases.
Lobbyist Karen Woodall, an advocate for more spending on health and human services, was elated at the decision.
"That's wonderful," Woodall said. "I have believed that it is not necessary to have a special session on cutting the budget. ...It just seemed very premature."
Rather than make painful cuts, Woodall said, the state could tap cash reserves or wait and hope the economy rebounds.