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Divided, not done

Feuding lawmakers slash $800-million from the state budget, but the House adjourns with $500-million in cuts left to go.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


Feuding lawmakers slash $800-million from the state budget, but the House adjourns with $500-million in cuts left to go.

TALLAHASSEE -- In an atmosphere of dissension and distrust, the Legislature fell short of solving the state's budget shortfall Tuesday as a special session collapsed after nine days.

The House sent Gov. Jeb Bush $800-million in budget cuts and then adjourned.

Left behind was a fuming Senate and millions more to cut.

Senate President John McKay called the budget unconstitutional and suggested a lawsuit should be filed against the House. And lawmakers say they will probably have to make more cuts in another special session or when they return to Tallahassee for the regular session in January. The Senate had not decided Tuesday night whether to convene or let the session run out as scheduled Thursday night.

The budget cuts are already the harshest in a decade.

Public schools would escape the deep cuts that had been threatened, but the budget slices human services and juvenile justice programs at a time when advocates say Florida is showing progress on those fronts. The cuts reduce a prescription program for low-income elderly, drug treatment programs for prison inmates, therapy for autistic children and aid to summer school students. Probation officers' caseloads will rise and counties will bear a higher cost of some programs, such as health clinics.

The House also kept intact a planned cut in the intangibles tax, over the Senate's strong protests. With the House having adjourned and the Senate still in session, the future of several other issues, including tighter security against terrorism, new public records exemptions and a job-creating economic stimulus package, were thrown in question.

Despite the chaotic finish, Bush said he was pleased with the outcome. That was a different tone from earlier in the day, when he hinted at possible line-item vetoes.

"There are $800-million in significant adjustments, and if you told me two weeks ago that we'd get that I would have been pleased," Bush said Tuesday night in Orlando. "So the House and Senate deserve praise."

The battle over the budget may have just begun.

Senate President McKay said the budget is unconstitutional because senators did not have it for three days before passing it last week as the law requires. He invited a victim of a budget cut to sue the Legislature.

"If my budget was cut, I'd be going to court in an effort to avoid that possibility," said McKay, who sought legal advice from Barry Richard, one of the Republicans' lawyers in the post-presidential election struggle last fall.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth released a memo circulated by his legal aides, who agreed with McKay that under the Constitution, the final budget must be furnished to all legislators for 72 hours before it can pass either house. The lawyers are quibbling over whether "either" means both houses or one or the other.

Aside from the legal wrangling, the House officially called it quits at 6:28 p.m. Tuesday after passing a budget on a party-line vote, 77-41, leaving the Senate in business but in recess. The Senate will decide today whether to take up the antiterrorism and economic incentives bills the House passed before and after the budget.

McKay, R-Bradenton, bluntly accused House Speaker Tom Feeney of favoring tax cuts for the rich over programs for the poor.

"One can only conclude that the House would prefer to cut education and health and human services while giving tax breaks to the wealthy out of the state savings account," McKay told the Senate.

Feeney, R-Oviedo, lost patience with senators' repeated insistence to "make no cut before its time," and concluded that the Senate was not courageous enough to make the required cuts. It was the first time in recent memory that the Legislature passed a budget without both chambers resolving differences in a conference committee.

"The only way we saw to get out of here," Feeney said of the Senate, "is to say we'll go as far as you can go. We'll be as courageous as you want to be."

The two houses passed the same budget bill but are totally at odds. The House, after weeks of complaining about the Senate's intransigence, ended up passing the Senate bill rather than its own. After getting their budget passed at the other end of the hall, senators cried foul because Feeney wouldn't demand a conference.

The result is a quick-fix budget no one is proud of. It's a harbinger of chaos and painful budget-cutting to come in 2002, a year of reapportionment and re-election battles.

"The problem with all this is the loss of the trust factor. We can no longer trust what they do down there, and we have to do all of these defensive mechanisms," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, the longest-serving current legislator.

Across the Capitol rotunda, the feeling was mutual.

"I believe the Senate is setting us up to be the bad guys in this deal," said first-term Rep. Carey Baker, R-Eustis.

The ninth day of a session convened by Bush in a spirit of "shared sacrifice" became an orgy of name-calling and finger-pointing. Contrary to recent sessions in which Democrats and Republicans were locked in political combat, much of the criticism this session was between Republicans.

"The Senate plan will probably take us into another cutting session by the next (regular) session," said Rep. Carlos Lacasa, the Miami Republican who heads the House's budget team. "Conservatively speaking . . . the cuts are deep enough to get us to Jan. 22," he said, referring to the starting day for the next regular session.

Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, said the Senate disliked its own budget and accepted it grudgingly "through clenched teeth."

House members predicted that they will soon be back in session to make the deeper cuts that are really needed.

But Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, challenged the Republicans' rhetoric.

"If we don't like the bill, why are we passing it? If we don't like political gamesmanship, why are we playing it?" Smith asked. "Why not pass our budget, go to conference and duke it out," Smith asked.

Other Democrats, including House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel, said the House spent too much time on measures not related to the budget, such as several patriotic bills most Democrats voted for.

"What is patriotic about requiring children to recite the Pledge of Allegience in a crowded classroom . . . with outdated books?" Frankel asked.

The House also voted for a handful of the antiterrorism bills that were proposed after the Sept. 11 attacks. House members agreed to make any driver licenses issued to foreign nationals expire at the same time as their visas, a bill that was introduced after lawmakers learned that more than a dozen of the terrorists in the attacks had a Florida ID.

Other bills the House passed define terrorism and give police the same wiretap authority they have in pursuing other criminals.

In what senators said was a last-ditch effort to seek common ground with the House, the Senate offered a slightly different budget with no new cuts, some bookkeeping changes and a two-day delay in the latest cut in the intangibles tax. Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Sarasota, said the revised budget would be voted on Friday, and would eliminate any doubt as to Senate compliance with the 72-hour "cooling off" period.

But most senators didn't think the House would take up the bill. They were right. To a few senators, it all had the look of an act of desperation.

"Do you have any other options?" Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, asked Carlton. "If they (House members) want to go home, let them go home."

The House did just that, formally adjourning after Feeney's floor general, Rep. Johnnie Byrd Jr., R-Plant City, called it "a great day for the people of Florida."

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