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Budget conference committee gets down to work, with time running short

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The House-Senate budget conference committee convened Thursday, exchanged pleasantries, and dispersed to begin working toward a compromise $83 billion spending plan for next fiscal year.

“Let the games begin,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, who’ll serve as chairman of the conference.

“We look forward to making quick and aggressive counter-offers, and we look forward to passing a budget on time,” said Carlos Trujillo, the House budget chairman and vice-chairman of the conference.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron attended the gathering. They’d appointed the members earlier in the day.

Members of the committee, including various subcommittees, were scheduled to work through the weekend to place a compromise budget before the House and Senate and adjourn on time on May 5.

“It’s Thursday, and so we’re hoping that the committees will move quickly with offers and counteroffers. But I think we have plenty of time for all the members to be engaged,” Negron said.

Getting here required resolving competing priorities, Negron told reporters. He mentioned House proposals to boost charter schools and Best and Brightest scholarships, and his own ambitions for higher education.

The House even accepted Negron’s Lake Okeechobee restoration plan, which would require floating bonds.

Under aggressive questioning by reporters, the presiding officers resisted giving a line-by-line account of the trade-offs.

“There are other issues that both sides care about, and I think it’s incumbent on me as the presiding officer in the Senate to make sure that priorities both of us share get passed in the last week,” he said.

“You’ve seen it all in the open, including amendments. We’ve traveled the state and talked about all those things that are priorities of the Senate and priorities of the House,” Corcoran said.

“I know all of you wrote that it was going to be a train wreck, we were going to go into 18 special sessions, we’re never going to get done. But now that we have come together, we’ve worked out our differences, and now we’re having a conference, I think it’s going to be a spectacular session,” Corcoran said.

“There’ll be no crashes, despite your reporting. And I think it’s going to be a good day for the state of Florida.”

Latvala spelled out some of the details. The Senate got a commitment for $50 million for beach restoration — “the magic number we’ve been looking for,” he said.

Visit Florida would receive $25 million, and Enterprise Florida would be kept alive with operating money but none for incentives. “That’s a long way from where the House was when they wanted to do away with both of them,” Latvala said.

He said he has been in contact with Gov. Rick Scott, who has pressed for his economic incentives programs this week via press releases. Scott has been meeting with House members and senators since returning from a trade mission to Argentina.

“The governor is very committed to the economy of the state of Florida. He’s committed to economic development. He’s committed to jobs. There’s nobody I know who pays more attention and focuses more on those issues than the governor,” Latvala said.

The Senate wins an across-the-board pay raise for state employees, with extra money earmarked for police and corrections officers, but has agreed to steer state workers — except for high-risk employees — who don’t express a preference into private-market retirement-savings plan rather than the traditional state pensions. They’d have nine months to choose.

The House gets its way with the required local effort — the minimum property tax rate for schools. The rate will be rolled back so that the amount paid will stay the same as it is now, notwithstanding rising property values.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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