Florida House, Senate leaders getting closer to a deal on budget allocations

Feb 27, 2012

The following article was published in The Florida Current on February 27, 2012:

House, Senate leaders getting closer to a deal on budget allocations

By Travis Pillow

House and Senate leaders said Monday that they had been talking informally through the weekend to reach an agreement on budget allocations, but they still need to resolve a few sticking points before a formal conference can begin.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, said the two chambers’ positions appeared to be closer than in previous years and that negotiations are “fluid and ongoing.” They have about one week from Tuesday to reconcile the House’s $69.2 billion spending plan with the Senate’s $70.8 billion proposal.

“We’ve resolved many issues, just got a couple more issues we’ve got to iron out,” Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander told his chamber on Monday.

Grimsley said she would be “comfortable” if budget conferences could start Tuesday and that she was hoping for an agreement by “Wednesday at the latest,” but a handful of unspecified issues would need to be resolved for that to happen.

Two areas with the biggest differences, as far as the overall size of the allocations, appear to be transportation and higher education.

One bill in the Senate’s budget package would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars in vehicle tag and license fees from general revenue to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund, resulting in an estimated increase of about $130 million for road-building in the coming fiscal year, and more than $400 million in future years. The House on Monday voted to send that conforming bill, SB 1998, to the budget conference.

The Senate is also looking to free up nearly $400 million in general revenue by asking universities to draw from their cash balances. “There’s a huge sum of money in the university savings account that hasn’t been allocated at this point,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos said.  

Some universities have said their balances are expected to shrink before the end of this fiscal year, and that some of their balances are already committed to future uses. The House has not made such a proposal, but is looking to give state universities more flexibility to raise tuition.

The House also makes fewer general revenue reductions to public hospitals, and mental health and substance abuse programs. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Palm City, the Senate’s top health-care budget-writer, has already said he intends to scrap a plan to divert more than $200 million in state general revenue funding from public hospitals in favor of a generic rate cut, and said that bringing the two chambers closer together on health care spending could mean more money will be available.

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