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$500-million expected to grease budget talks

Lawmakers look at the surplus half billion dollars and envision smoother negotiations and fewer obstacles to pet projects.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- When the word "economy" rolls off the lips of state lawmakers these days, it always follows the word "booming."

Florida is flush with cash for all sorts of reasons, but nobody in Tallahassee seems to care why. As they begin dividing the state fortune into next year's budget, lawmakers want to know how much money they will have to spend in this election year.

The answer, expected today, is about $500-million more than they had thought.

"North of $500-million, that's what I heard," said Sen. John McKay, a Republican from Bradenton who is in line to become Senate president next year.

Asked how such a bonus will affect the budget battle the House and Senate are set to begin, McKay said, "It can't hurt."

For weeks there have been wishful whispers about what the so-called "revenue estimating conference" might reveal this spring.

By Thursday, with most estimates rising to the $500-million mark, lawmakers began to anticipate gentler budget negotiations and new life for their ailing pet projects, which they hope to bring home this year if they clear Gov. Jeb Bush's veto ax.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Palm Harbor, said the extra money improved chances that Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg would get $1-million for expansion.

Rep. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey, said he wanted to build a new gymnasium for the Boys and Girls Clubs in Pasco County. Kathy Betancourt, a lobbyist for the University of South Florida, had a laundry list so long she felt she needed the entire half-billion.

"USF could spend $500-million, and it would come back one hundredfold for the students," she said.

Then came that voice of moderation.

"I'm going to encourage restraint first," Bush said.

Senate President Toni Jennings seemed to agree.

"We don't have to spend it all," she said, tempering her fellow Republicans. Funding for a $15-million performing arts center in her hometown of Orlando looks secure.

The Senate has proposed about $267-million in tax cuts, less than half of what the House is promising.

Jennings said she might be willing to consider more tax cuts, but first she wanted to address teacher shortages and funding for low-performing public schools.

Thrasher wants more than $30-million for a project dear to him, a new medical school at Florida State University, his alma mater.

Asked whether millions might go toward improving congested U.S. 19 in Pinellas County, Thrasher's thoughts went only as far as his district, just outside Jacksonville.

"Does that go through Clay County?" he said.

For years, the revenue estimating conference preceded the legislative session. This year, Republican leaders chose to put it right in the middle, allowing state economists to have fresher information when they huddle today on the Capitol's 21st floor to forecast Florida's financial future.

Bush and lawmakers based their proposed, $50-billion budgets on estimates made last fall. Since then, the state has collected more than expected in sales taxes, corporate income taxes and taxes from stocks and bond investments.

The Senate and House are about $1.3-billion apart on tax cuts and in spending for education, social services and criminal justice, but the gap seems narrower with an extra $500-million.

Lawmakers from both houses met Thursday afternoon to formally begin budget negotiations. Thrasher presented Jennings with a bowl of cherry-flavored Jell-O that matched her blazer. The Speaker said the offering was in response to comments Jennings had made about the lack of detail in the House budget.

No, Jennings said, it was the House's vague tax cut plan that she had compared to Jell-O, because "you don't really know what goes into it and it moves around a lot."

Jennings then uncovered a plastic vat, dipped into it with a spoon and dropped a dollop of cream into the Jell-O. That, she said later, was the $500-million.

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