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Senators head home; budget's future unclear

The governor has not decided whether to sign the budget cuts passed in the special session.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2001


The governor has not decided whether to sign the budget cuts passed in the special session.

TALLAHASSEE -- Senate President John McKay sent his members home Wednesday, signaling the end of a special legislative session that produced rancor, gamesmanship and a budget cutting plan no one thinks will work.

But they might want to wait to unpack. Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday he hasn't decided whether to sign or veto the $800-million in cuts passed during the session, and he could call all lawmakers right back to plug the entire $1.3-billion hole in the budget.

"No option that I have has been taken off the table," Bush said. His office is reviewing the budget for possible problems, such as whether lawmakers met a constitutionally required, 72-hour cooling-off period before final approval. House members insist they did; some senators insist they did not.

Despite the abrupt end to the session, Bush said lawmakers gave him the money he wanted for his economic stimulus plan and to tighten security.

Some $20-million was included in the budget for a marketing blitz to lure tourists back to the state. And Bush has said his plan to speed up school and road construction projects could create up to 30,000 jobs at a time when Florida unemployment claims are at their highest in 10 years.

Lawmakers also set aside $13-million so the state can start beefing up security. Some of that money will pay for scanners so driver's license bureaus can copy documents foreign nationals use to prove their identity when they apply for Florida drivers' licenses. More than a dozen of the hijackers in the Sept. 11 attacks had Florida licenses or ID cards.

But other antiterrorism bills were left hanging, although Bush said he could enact some of the measures by executive order.

The Senate passed a rule allowing a committee to meet in secret when security measures were discussed, but none of the public records exemptions some lawmakers had sought survived. And an attempt by lawmakers to reduce the budget by reducing their own pay died.

Lawmakers did approve a specialty license plate with the logo "United We Stand" in commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks. The money raised by the tags will help fight terrorism.

But the license plate was about as united as members of the House and Senate got.

Bush named no names, but he chided the Legislature for playing games while cutting programs that Florida families depend on.

"The level of rancor, the inside-the-building kind of gamesmanship . . . seemed to be too high, and I don't like it," Bush said.

Bush was referring to the impromptu game of chicken McKay and House Speaker Tom Feeney played in the days leading up to the session finale, when both men refused to budge on whether to repeal a cut in a state investment tax. McKay wanted to repeal the latest cut in the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds and use that $128-million to stave off further budget cuts; Feeney refused to consider delaying the tax cut.

The climax came last Thursday night, when Feeney took up the Senate budget cutting plan instead of his own but refused to hear the companion bill to repeal the tax cut. The move shocked senators, who had hoped to force House members to negotiate on the tax cut issue during the traditional conference committee to iron out differences in budget plans.

The maneuver drew attention away from the seriousness of the task and confused people back home, Bush said Wednesday.

Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, the "dean" of the Legislature with 24 years in office, called the Feeney-McKay feud "a real mess" with ominous implications for the regular session early next year that includes reapportionment, more budget cuts, tax reform and elections.

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report, which contains information from the Associated Press.

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