House and Senate Reach $68 Billion Budget Deal

May 4, 2011

The following article was published in The Sunshine News on May 4, 2011:

House and Senate Reach $68 Billion Deal

By Kevin Derby and Gray Rohrer

After negotiations that lasted until the early morning hours Tuesday, the House and Senate reached agreement on a $68 billion, 2011-2012 Florida budget. It was no mean feat, considering last year’s budget topped $70.4 billion.

Leaders from both chambers had taken shots at each other in recent weeks as the two sides sparred over the final document.

 As late as Monday night House and Senate remained far apart as House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, released a statement on the budget negotiations — and took a swipe at the Senate’s proposed funding of Health and Human Services (HHS) projects.

“Every House offer has been within the agreed-upon and published allocations, and to suggest otherwise is misleading and untrue,” said Grimsley. “The difference between the House and Senate HHS budgets is that the House is trying to level-fund critical needs and resolve deficits and the Senate is trying to fund political payback to special interests, member projects and early implement federal health-care reform.”

 However, after a late-night negotiation session that extended until Tuesday’s wee hours, leaders from both chambers announced the agreement.

 “We worked, (Senate President Mike Haridopolos) and I, until 4-ish a.m. trying to bring about a resolution,” said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate’s chief negotiator. He added that the budget, which cuts $3.8 billion and makes up even the current shortfall, was perhaps the hardest to accomplish in his memory.

 The final details were not available on deadline, but Alexander said that the Senate essentially came around to the House positions on fully funding Meds-Ad and Medically Needy, two Medicaid programs that the Senate wanted to reduce or cut completely. In the latest budget negotiations, Medicaid spending — more than half of which is paid for by federal dollars and takes up nearly 30 percent of the budget — was cut by $1.3 billion.

 “The main area that has been hanging us up was the (HHS) budget, in Meds-Ad and Medically Needy, two very important programs that draw down federal match and additional resources,” Alexander said.

 While the budget offered almost $310 million in tax breaks, these fell far short of some of the initial proposals being bandied about before session — and more than $210 million of the breaks are from property taxes going to the five water management districts across the state.

 While a corporate tax break was included in the final deal, the corporate income tax exemption was raised from $5,000 to $25,000. The measure will mean about $30 million in tax relief, far short of the $1.3 billion sought by  Gov. Rick Scott, who consistently pushed the reduction and eventual elimination of the corporate income tax.

 “The business tax cut is a huge win for business owners in Florida,” said Scott at a media event in which he praised the efforts of both Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. “It’s a great first step toward phasing out the business tax over seven years.”

 The deal means the regular session, scheduled to end Friday, could end on time. Alexander and House budget negotiators expressed concern Monday about being able to finish on time after budget negotiations looked to be at an impasse.

 The House leadership spoke during Tuesday’s session and showed their confidence in the budget agreement, meaning adjournment on Friday.

 Cannon spoke to the House on Tuesday afternoon, calling it the most challenging budget year in modern Florida history and praising House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring.

 “She did it with integrity, the strength and the quiet confidence of someone with nothing to prove and she is tough as nails,” said Cannon. “She never backed down in her fight.”

 “Tonight, sometime this evening, we will be publishing,” said Grimsley, who added that conforming bills will be coming up on Wednesday and Thursday. “We will go home on Friday.”

 “Amen to that,” said Cannon. “We have a (budget) we can all be proud of,” he added.

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