State Politics

Overtime next for gloomy session

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers have ended 60 days of regulation time marked by indecision, economic gloom, a federal bailout, the downfall of a former leader and unfinished business that’s adding a week of overtime to the 2009 session.

An extension passed by both chambers limits the business lawmakers can conduct through Friday to passing a state budget and related matters including such revenue-raising issues as the expansion of gambling and tax and fee increases.

“We’re in limbo land,” Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said Saturday. “We’re done except for the most important thing we have to do.”

Developing a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 has been particularly daunting due to Florida’s faltering economy and resulting revenue shortfalls.

Lawmakers are expecting to spend something more than $65 billion before they’re done, but that’s nearly $8 billion less than they appropriated two years ago. Since then, they’ve been cutting spending at a furious pace.

The state, though, has been spared even deeper cuts because President Barack Obama’s stimulus package is expected to send $13 billion Florida’s way during the current and next two budget years.

The Republican-controlled Legislature so far has agreed to accept most of those federal dollars.

The House stumbled out of the gate in March by formally replacing Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, as speaker with Rep. Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, on opening day.

Sansom was ousted after disclosures he funneled millions to Northwest Florida State College as budget chairman before accepting a $110,000 job at the school on the same November day he was elected speaker.

Sansom also resigned the college job but remains a House member. Two weeks ago, a grand jury indicted him and the college’s president on official misconduct charges.

The Legislature failed to finish on time because Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, were unable to agree on preliminary but critical budget issues. Their behind-the-scenes talks delayed public negotiations by conference committees for 10 days before an agreement emerged.

“The whole process has been complicated by the change in leadership in the House,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who chairs one of the House’s two main budget panels, acknowledged the session started with more stress and uncertainty due to the switch in speakers, but he insisted that “ultimately it didn’t” affect the Legislature’s work.

That work included passing and sending Gov. Charlie Crist 227 bills out of 853 filed in the House and 1,286 in the Senate.

Some bills that made it to the governor’s desk are being touted as potentially lifesaving measures.

One would authorize the Department of Health to track prescription drugs dispensed by pharmacies and clinics to crack down on abuse that’s claimed thousands of lives. Another would let police pull over drivers solely for failing to buckle their seat belts. Current law permits officers to issue seat belt citations only in connection with other violations.

Besides bills, the Legislature voted to put three proposed state constitutional amendments on the 2010 ballot out of 30 filed in the Senate and 16 in the House.

One is a property tax relief measure Crist pushed for. Another would provide a tax break to military serving overseas.