State Politics

Budget may force overtime session

TALLAHASSEE — Legislators are contemplating an unappetizing prospect: The Legislature might not reach a budget deal by the scheduled May 1 adjournment, potentially forcing a rare overtime session to get the job done.

Almost two weeks into their annual session, legislators face a tight schedule to hash out grueling budget decisions, with a revenue estimate released Friday showing the budget deficit for 2010 now tops $6 billion. Adding to the angst: a looming battle over how much federal stimulus money legislators should use to plug that shortfall.

“I think there’s a legitimate chance” the budget work won’t be done on time, said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres. “That’s the elephant in the room. We don’t know how much (stimulus) money we’re getting.”

A delay could cost taxpayers up to $40,000 a day to keep legislators in town. And it could mean weeks of uncertainty for schools and other agencies and programs that rely on state funding.

The last budget stalemate was in 2003, when an acrimonious standoff between the Senate and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd produced a budget nearly a month behind schedule. Before that, budget cuts triggered by a severe recession in 1992 kept legislators in town through June.

Even among those who think legislators will manage to cut a deal before the end of regular session, few think the spending plan will stick if the economy worsens. “They probably will end on time, and then come back in a special session to cut again,” said Rebecca O’Hara, a lobbyist with the Florida League of Cities.

Florida’s citizen-Legislature gathers in Tallahassee from March to May for its 60-day lawmaking session. According to the state constitution, legislators are required to pass only one bill: a budget.

The fiscal crisis “has the makings of being here through May and June — easily,” lobbyist Ron Book said. “I don’t see us getting out of here in any reasonable amount of time. I’m betting not sooner than May 25.”