State Politics

FLORIDA LEGISLATURE: Budget talks hit the skids

TALLAHASSEE — Negotiations on a state budget suddenly collapsed Saturday as lawmakers called off planned public talks, citing a disagreement over the budget’s bottom line and raising concerns over whether the 60-day session can end on time.

The House and Senate are about $880 million apart when it comes to using Medicaid money, and are about $500 million apart over transportation spending.

Saturday’s cancellation makes an on-time adjournment of the session April 30 less likely, and that would result in an election-year embarrassment for Republicans who run the Legislature. They could face criticism for failing to produce an on-time balanced budget, despite billions in federal economic stimulus money from the Obama administration.

“I think they are pretty far apart over there and I would implore the House and Senate to get it together,” Gov. Charlie Crist said in a campaign appearance Saturday afternoon in Jacksonville.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Senate President Jeff Atwater called him Saturday morning to tell him a planned introductory meeting of budget conferees was off.

“I don’t have specifics and the president wasn’t specific, either,” Fasano said.

At one point, it looked like a sure thing that hundreds of millions more in Medicaid money would flow from Democrats in Congress, and Gov. Charlie Crist plugged the money into his proposed budget.

The Senate provisionally plugged in the money, but the House didn’t and won’t. So far, it looks like the House was right, because there’s not much movement on Capitol Hill to spend more money because Republicans up there are balking at more social services spending.

Atwater said Friday that he was ready to go to the House position and “make more reductions,” but said he didn’t think it was necessary yet.

House Speaker Larry Cretul said earlier in the week that he wanted the Senate to give him a list of specific programs that would face cuts if the new Medicaid money never arrived.

Apparently, he never got the list or he didn’t like what he saw.

Atwater and Cretul last year insisted on providing a new, heightened level of transparency in budget talks. But they kept negotiations over allocations secret, and that’s a good deal of the game when it comes to budgeting.

After all, deciding just how much the state can spend on, say, health or economic development is a major policy decision.

House Democrats criticized Republicans for taking budget talks “into the shadows” and out of the public spotlight where decisions can be scrutinized.

“It is shameful to see the current Republican legislative leadership waste taxpayer dollars this way,” said House Democratic Leader Franklin Sands, D-Weston. “Maybe they should pay for the additional costs to taxpayers on their Republican Party of Florida credit cards.”

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander defended some of the secrecy. “It’s better than what they do in Congress,” he said.

House spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin discounted — but did not rule out — the possibility of a session that doesn’t end on time.

“That will be a tactic some use to inspire fear and terror,” she said.