State Politics

Senate, House begin annual budget dance

TALLAHASSEE — A rite of spring in the state capital, the battle of the budget, began Tuesday as a key House committee rolled out a spending plan sharply different from the Senate’s, triggering a series of philosophical debates over how to spend the public’s money while plugging a $3.2 billion shortfall.

Election-minded lawmakers must cover that deficit, cope with a mushrooming Medicaid caseload and maintain the current level of school spending, without raising taxes.

Hundreds of vacant state jobs would be eliminated in both budget versions.

The House’s $67.2 billion budget is nearly $1.5 billion less than the Senate’s $68.6 billion version. The House would stockpile $1.8 billion in savings for next year, partly to plug future budget holes caused by the “flameout’’ of federal stimulus money.

“It absolutely is a priority of mine, and the House leadership, that we do have an adequate reserve,” said Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who’s in line to become speaker in November.

Lobbyists for firefighters, police officers and other state workers criticized the House for wiping out a health-care subsidy paid to nearly 300,000 retired government workers to save $224 million.

Road builders, truckers and other ground transportation advocates blasted the House for siphoning $466 million from a road-building fund, paid for with motorists’ gasoline taxes, to balance the budget.

“A jobs killer,” said Sally Patrenos of the Florida Transportation Commission. The state Department of Transportation said many road building and repair projects could be imperiled by the cash raid, an idea long unpopular in the Senate.

“We need to find revenues to fill that hole,” said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, chairman of the House budget council that approved the spending plan on a party-line vote.

A House effort to virtually eliminate the state office that helps minority-owned businesses get government contracts survived, following criticism from African-American lawmakers.

Operators of pre-kindergarten programs praised the House for taking $53.4 million from the public schools budget to avoid bigger cuts to a statewide public-private program that provides early childhood education to four-year-olds.

About two dozen highway safety community services officers who investigate minor crashes face losing their jobs in the House version. Most work in Orlando and Tampa Bay.

At the same time, the Senate released the first version of its $68 billion spending plan. It features no raid on the highway fund, a 7 percent pay cut for legislators, and the proposed sale of one of two aircraft used by the governor and other officials. The Senate leaves untouched the Lawton Chiles Endowment fund, a health care program, which would lose $600 million under the House plan.

Both chambers eventually will be forced to reconcile their differences and agree on a single budget for the annual session to end on time April 30. For now, each will engage in the traditional dance of posturing and testing each others’ wills.

In the first year removed from the downfall and indictment of former House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin over backroom budget dealings that benefited a hometown college, the House took the new step of releasing a booklet that provided detailed explanations of hundreds of budget actions. Though it won’t make anyone’s best-seller list, it provides a more thorough road map to the House’s spending decisions.