House and Senate close on some budget items, far apart on others

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Conference committees worked through Wednesday evening resolve the House and Senate budgets, which provided a hint of optimism that they could knock out a deal before the next set of legislative leaders get involved.

However, Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron has other ideas, telling the News Service of Florida that there is a “very high” possibility that the meetings will continue into the weekend.

“One thing you learn when you get to Tallahassee is you don’t leave the Capitol building the weekend before the session ends because one of your projects may have been traded for the project of someone who is still in the Capitol,” Negron told reporter Brandon Larrabee.

On the other hand, deals in some specific parts of the budget were already getting close. Most of the agreed-upon spending plans so far were for courts and prisons, a comprehensive “general government” group and some transportation and economic development budgets.

By early Wednesday evening, it was not clear what other items would be “bumped up” to Negron and House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, the two lawmakers taking up negotiations on Thursday morning.

Deadline for the conclusion of budget talks is Tuesday, when a final spending plan must be on legislators’ desks. Unfortunately, as of Wednesday evening, some issues seem to be the most likely candidates to be placed on Negron and McKeel’s shoulders.

One tricky item is small, only $13 million out of a budget of around $75 billion, but contentious — the proposal to split the shared Florida State University and Florida A&M University College of Engineering.

FSU supporters say it needs a standalone facility to raise its reputation to the level of elite public universities. FAMU and its alumni denounced the idea, saying it echoes back to a time when the historically black college’s law school closed right after a similar facility opened at FSU.

Senate Rules Chair John Thrasher has made the issue a top priority for his alma mater. Republican Sen. Bill Galvano, in charge of education negotiations, also intends not to abandon the FSU-only school plans.

Also holding up talks are how to spend $200 million in “pay for performance” for state universities, as well as millions of dollars for public school technology—where the House wants to spend $81.3 million and the Senate only $40 million.

Water projects are another sticking point, including nearly $96 million in funding earmarked by the Senate for Everglades-related projects, the Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee. Those projects are another priority for Negron, making them very valuable as leverage, and something House leaders will not give away easily.

“Water projects are sort of the meat and potatoes, sometimes, of what members hear from their constituents back home,” Senate President Don Gaetz told the News Service.

The Senate is holding off on the 1,000-foot-high business and amusement SkyRise Miami, a $10 million line item that will probably get pushed on Negron and McKeel. Developer Jeff Berkowitz estimated SkyRise Miami could cost as much as $430 million, with a combination of public and private financing. He has attempted to attract at least half the money from overseas investment using the federal EB-5 visa program, a permanent residence option for wealthy individuals.

If  negotiations between Negron and McKeel stall, they may have to call in Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to get the ball rolling.

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.