TALLAHASSEE — House and Senate leaders failed to break a deadlock Friday over key preliminary issues that must be resolved before formal budget negotiations can begin just a week away from the scheduled close of the regular legislative session.
Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul told their respective chambers to go home for the weekend after a seventh day of behind-the-scenes talks without an agreement.
“We’ve certainly narrowed matters,” said Atwater, R-North Palm Beach. “But there are some gaps that remain.”
Atwater said he still held out hope for an on-time finish a week from Friday, but acknowledged that would be tough. He declined to discuss details of his talks with Cretul, R-Ocala.
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To adjourn on schedule, joint conference committees would have only two days when lawmakers return Monday to complete formal budget negotiations that usually take a week or more, including weekend meetings.
The budget must be settled, printed and distributed to all members and top state officials by midnight Tuesday. That’s because the Florida Constitution requires a 72-hour cooling off period to permit public review of the compromise budget plan before a final vote.
If lawmakers cannot meet that deadline, their options are to extend the session or meet in special session.
“The May 1 thing, we can talk about it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican and former Senate president. “I hope I’m wrong.”
Cretul, Atwater and other top leaders have been unable to agree on how much and what kind of new taxes and fees the budget should include and how much money should be apportioned to each major spending area such as education and health and human services.
While the leaders talked in private, both chambers tended to other business and two groups filled the Capitol rotunda to hold budget protests — state employees and workers from a small Miami-based cigarette company.
State workers’ chants of “Enough is enough” could be heard in the legislative chambers. They’re angry over a House budget provision cutting most wages by 4 or 5 percent. The Senate plan would reduce only the salaries of those making more than $100,000 by 1 percent.
“It would mean I would have to take a lot of cutbacks at home,” said Reginald Brady, a child protective investigator for the Department of Children and Families in Jacksonville.
Brady said he’d get a 4 percent reduction under the House proposal and probably would switch his children to a school closer to home to save gas money.
He was among a throng of employees clad in green shirts provided by their union. Union leaders said it’s unfair to force workers to take a pay cut because lawmakers have frozen their wages for three straight years.
Employees of Dosal Corp., wearing white T-shirts, protested a proposal floated during the private budget talks earlier this week that would have eliminated a price advantage the company has over major brands.
After meeting with the Dosal workers, House leaders backed off from the idea of requiring Dosal to pay a state fee because the company is exempt from contributing to Florida’s settlement with large tobacco companies that compensates the state for treatment it provides to sick smokers.
The ever-optimistic Gov. Charlie Crist said he’s been talking with legislative leaders and remained hopeful they’d soon resolve their differences.
“They’re less than 1 percent away from each other as it relates to maybe $400 million out of a $65 billion budget,” Crist said while planting a crepe myrtle outside the Capitol to mark Arbor Day. “So that’s what gives me hope and I think that there’s still room for reasonable movement that gives us a chance to get this thing done on time.”
The Senate’s $65.6 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is about $100 million more than is currently being spent and nearly $550 million more than the House version.