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Late at night, deal was sealed

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Senate President Toni Jennings vowed to keep the Legislature in session as long as it took to get her way. House Speaker John Thrasher said he wouldn't bend.

By daybreak Tuesday, though, they had a deal.

Who won?

It depends upon your point of view, as it often does in the Florida Legislature.

Jennings, an Orlando Republican running for state insurance commissioner, wanted to use more than $3-billion of the surplus in the state retirement system to improve benefits for state employees and raise teacher salaries by 8 percent.

The budget agreement uses $656-million of the surplus, a number endorsed by Thrasher and Gov. Jeb Bush.

Under the agreement, school districts will save $85-million in contributions to the retirement system that they can use for higher teacher salaries. Jennings wanted more than twice that much.

But Jennings' ultimate goal was to find more money for education and teacher salaries. And she still did, by agreeing to phase in other parts of the retirement system package and massaging other parts of the budget.

The result: Jennings and Thrasher said there is enough money for "substantial" teacher raises of perhaps 6 percent or 7 percent.

"If there's a school board that doesn't give its teachers a substantial increase in pay, they ought to be held accountable," Thrasher told legislators Tuesday.

Wayne Blanton, the lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association, said there is at least enough money for 5 percent teacher raises. After that, he said, individual districts will have to start choosing between even higher raises or other priorities such as reducing class sizes.

Jennings and Thrasher sealed the deal in a late-night call Monday, not long after she was asked whether she felt Bush and Thrasher were ganging up on her.

"When you're a girl," Jennings smiled, "you're used to getting picked on."

Staffers cranked out the agreement by about 4 a.m. Tuesday. When reporters asked Thrasher several hours later what concessions he had made, he could not name one. Jennings, whose aides were miffed when Thrasher announced the deal to great fanfare first in the House, would not pick winners or losers.

"I don't keep score when it comes to public policy," she said after a midday news conference where she and Thrasher exchanged hugs and compliments.

Blanton said the budget agreement turned out to be like many legislative deals.

"It looks to me like they split the difference," he said. "It's a very good middle ground for both sides."

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