By MARC CAPUTO
Herald Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE -- As lawmakers struggle with questions of tax increases, the state’s mammoth budget and whether the legislative session will end on time, one person has emerged as a political power in the Capitol: Dean Cannon.
The Winter Park Republican amd future House Speaker has become the point person in secret negotiations with the state Senate’s budget chief. The two chambers are trying to figure out how much money to allot to critical areas including schools, health care, prisons, roads, the environment and courts.
Since Cannon took on the role as budget negotiator two weeks ago, the House has become more insistent on raising more revenues this year and saving more money for the 2010-11 budget year -- when Cannon takes the reins of power from House Speaker Larry Cretul.
Cannon said he and Cretul are “taking the long view’’ because it’s the right thing to do.
“It’s not about me or any individual member of the House or Senate,” Cannon said. ‘‘It’s about what’s the right way to do a budget. If I were termed out this year, I would say the same thing because it’s true.”
Cannon points out the state needs to save more money to preserve its high bond rating.
Other lawmakers, such as the House Democrats’ budget leader, Rep. Ron Saunders, said there’s a clear link between Cannon, his speakership and the budget.
“The dynamic has changed,” said Saunders, of Key West. “Dean is worried about year three -- that’s when he’s House Speaker,” Saunders said, though noting that Cretul also has emphasized trying to establish more savings in the next few years.
Also, Saunders said, the tax increases the House might accept will happen in one fell swoop this year -- long before Cannon takes the reins as speaker.
Cannon shuttled between closed-door meetings with Cretul, other House leaders and Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander on Wednesday. Unlike many in the freshman-heavy House, Cannon is a veteran with experience negotiating deals in previous sessions on high-priority issues such as property-tax cuts.
One reason Cretul tapped Cannon: Senate President Jeff Atwater requested him, Cannon said. Cretul also noted that the budget decisions made today will have a direct effect on Cannon’s two-year term as speaker.
Also, Cretul inherited a House that had two budget chiefs, Marcelo Llorente and David Rivera, instead of one. The Miami Republicans are running against each other for Senate.
Tapping one budget chief to lead House talks could trigger charges of favoritism in the House.
Previous House Speaker Ray Sansom quit his post before he was indicted by a grand jury for allegedly abusing the budget system to help a friend and political contributor.
The grand jury also rapped the Legislature for the secretiveness of the budget process -- a criticism that seems to have made little impact as lawmakers in both chambers privately pass out spreadsheets detailing the latest budget negotiations.
The budget talks -- and Cannon’s involvement -- are so secret that high-level legislative Republican leaders would only detail them anonymously. Even Alexander, normally ever-quotable, offered only two words when asked about Cannon’s involvement: “No comment.”
One reason for the reticence: budget talks are tense. The House and Senate budgets are $547 million apart, money is scarce and the Senate is insistent on a cigarette tax and Indian gaming money to help finance the state’s needs.
The House is willing to back off its objections to a cigarette tax and money from Indian gaming -- but it wants the Senate to accept a House plan that cuts a transportation fund, higher education and state-worker pay.
Failure to reach agreement this week will likely result in a legislative session that finishes May 1 without a balanced budget, which would mean a special session or overtime.
Alexander said he would rather assemble a budget that a broad majority of senators in both parties can defend back home than rely on a Republican budget acceptable only to the GOP majority.
“Frankly, I’m surprised it has taken this long,” Alexander said of the budget process, addding that “there is no agreement’’ on budget details with the House.
Asked about negotiating with Cannon, Alexander smiled: “I talk to lots of people.”
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com