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Two men of letters in budget brouhaha


© St. Petersburg Times, published April 21, 2001

The talk is all about overtime.

The talk is all about overtime.

The Legislature came to town on March 6 with one thing that absolutely had to be done during its annual 60-day session: pass a budget.

And, yes, you guessed it. They are light years apart and exchanging letters, but there is no budget in sight with 10 legislative days left on the calendar.

Senate President John McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney work on the same floor in the state Capitol, rub elbows at legislative parties at night and could pick up the telephone at any moment in the day, but there appears to be no meaningful discussion going on.

Each side has passed a budget and rejected the other side's budget. No one has been in a hurry to confer over a compromise.

Feeney grew impatient last week and wrote a letter to McKay, an unusual step in a process that traditionally involves a lot of discussion amid offers and counteroffers.

Feeney offered to match the Senate's spending in some areas and urged the Senate to agree to the tax breaks the House wants, sort of bypassing the usual negotiating process that bubbles up from conference committees appointed by each side.

McKay was not happy with the letter, particularly since copies were distributed to reporters first.

And so McKay waited until this week to respond in writing with the appointment of conferees. But he didn't accept or reject Feeney's offer, a tactic that left Feeney saying he was not willing to appoint conferees until McKay agrees to tax breaks.

Thus we have our leaders exchanging letters in a rather bizarre game of chicken. We're waiting for someone to blink.

McKay did send a second answer to Feeney, saying he would be willing to use about $50-million in new money for tax breaks, but no more.

On Friday, as McKay gaveled the Senate to order, he talked about the letter exchange, calling it a "novel way to start negotiations."

This high-level letter-writing bumps negotiations to the top, eliminating the members of the House and Senate from the discussion, McKay noted.

"That is a mistake," he said. "I value the opinions of each and every one of you."

McKay promised he won't exclude members from the process. The Senate will negotiate in the usual way, letting conferees make the compromises and leaving any unresolved issue to leaders.

"Be prepared to work overtime next week," McKay warned the Senate.

It is still possible to get a budget finished and leave town on time, but no one seems to be worried about leaving. McKay says he doesn't have a golf date until August, and Feeney says he feels no pressure to hurry.

Senate Majority Leader Jim King says lawmakers will "look foolish" if a budget train crash occurs.

Democrats in the Senate are supporting McKay. So are the Democrats in the House. That leaves Feeney and Gov. Jeb Bush somewhat isolated on the tax cut island.

Feeney and Bush want tax cuts totaling $355-million. Democrats and McKay say Florida's needs would not be met if that much is cut from the budget.

"The severity of your proposed tax cuts would compromise the health and safety of our citizens and the education of our children," McKay said bluntly in a letter he sent to Feeney on Thursday.

Feeney suggests taking a look at some of the member projects in the budget and hints that the House might take the unusual step of spotlighting the pork rather than giving up on tax breaks.

"In over 15 years, I thought I'd seen just about every conference situation you could have, but the thought of conferring with ourselves is sort of mind boggling," King said Friday.

For those of us who watch this process, the prospect of overtime is the mind boggling part. Legislators are like fish. Keep them around too long and they begin to smell bad.

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