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Legislature stakes out positions on budget

The House and Senate pass two very different spending plans Tuesday, which will force some compromises.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 5, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker John Thrasher wants millions for a medical school for his alma mater. Senate President Toni Jennings wants millions for a performing arts center in her home town.

With the passage of two very different budgets by the House and the Senate Tuesday, the scene is set for the real horse trading to begin.

Pork barrel projects and almost every major issue before the Legislature could get tangled up in the negotiations as Jennings, Thrasher and their hand-picked negotiators stake out positions and forge a compromise on the only bill they must pass this legislative session, the state's $50-billion budget.

For Floridians, the stakes are huge: In the coming weeks, the two chambers will decide how much money to spend on everything from tax cuts to public schools to services for the elderly and the poor.

Some of the bargaining may have nothing to do with tax dollars and bottom lines. For instance, Jennings wants to enact sweeping campaign finance reform that Thrasher opposes. What will she be willing to give in the budget to get it? Thrasher is exploring ways to curb the judiciary's power, which Jennings has said she is not interested in doing.

Hovering behind the scenes will be Gov. Jeb Bush, who has his own priorities and a hefty stick that keeps lawmakers from ignoring his wishes: the ability to veto budget items important to lawmakers.

Although both the House and Senate are controlled by Republicans, there are real philosophical differences to be worked out in terms of budget priorities and how to pay for them. The negotiating teams will be appointed Thursday, but the real work begins next week.

"We've got a long way to go, but we're optimistic," Thrasher said Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala suggested a compromise could be reached faster if the House would be more specific about its tax-cutting plan.

"Let them put something out on the table first for a change," Latvala said.

The House's budget is $50.2-billion, a 3.3 percent increase over last year. The state Senate's budget is $50-billion, about a 2.3 percent increase over last year.

The Senate plans $263-million in tax relief. Bush wants more than twice that amount, and the House has indicated that it might cut more than $600-million in taxes. The Senate wants to spend $400-million improving state roads, or nearly four times the amount the House is recommending.

The Senate also wants to spend more on education. It plans to increase spending on public schools by $948-million, up from this year's $10.9-billion. The Senate's plan allows for an 8 percent raise for teachers, partly funded through a reduction in contributions local school districts must make into the state retirement fund.

The House is opposed to tinkering with the state retirement fund. It wants to increase spending on public school education by $727-million, plus an additional $94-million for the state's best and worst schools. Thrasher also opposes earmarking money for teacher raises, saying the state shouldn't dictate how local school boards should spend the money.

Some differences could be worked out Friday, when the state gets new revenue estimates for next year. If, as expected, they come in higher than predicted, lawmakers would have more money to work with.

In partisan debate Tuesday, several House Democrats complained that the House's big tax cut was being funded at the expense of other critical state needs. Nevertheless, the House budget passed 112-3 with Democrats saying they hoped the Senate's position would win out. The Senate budget passed unanimously, with Senate Democrats calling that chamber's plan a bipartisan effort.


-- Staff writer William Yardley contributed to this report.

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