Budget chairs meet after a day of deal-making

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The endgame on the state budget drew closer late Friday, as Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander and House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley met after a day of deal-making on the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

The brief meeting between Alexander and Grimsley highlighted the progress made on a variety of issues throughout the day, though some — such as plan to graft a growth-management overhaul onto a conforming bill — proved more controversial than others — like an agreement on how to reduce retirement costs for state employees.

?utside of the health and human services issues to work through, most of the conferences did a nice job of closing most of the gaps,?Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said after meeting with Grimsley, R-Sebring.

After failing to meet until late Friday, House and Senate negotiators quickly struck a deal on the state retirement system.

Under the plan, all state employees would contribute 3 percent of their incomes toward their own pension; the Deferred Retirement Option Program early retirement program would remain open, but the interest rate would be dramatically reduced; and cost-of-living adjustments for current employees would be frozen for five years after the Senate proposed doing away with them all together.

The proposal would also raise the retirement age for state workers, but would not force new employees to join a 401(k)-style defined-contribution plan.

That is far short of the overhaul proposed by Gov. Rick Scott, who pitched a plan that would have required employees to contribute 5 percent and moved new workers into the defined contribution plan.

?t could have been a lot worse,?said Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. ?… I don? like the 3-percent contribution. I know 5 percent? a lot worse.?

Among the most controversial agreements Friday: A deal by the conference committee overseeing transportation and economic development that includes a major rewrite of the state? growth-management laws. That measure was wrapped up in a government reorganization conforming bill.

Committee members did add a slate of amendments from the Senate version of the growth-management measure, which environmentalists have said is more palatable, after the rejection of one of the measures almost capsized the entire conference.

Environmental groups were outraged.

?hey just negotiated out a close-to-300-page growth management reform in a budget conference committee, thereby preventing it from a meaningful hearing on the Senate floor,?said Janet Bowman, a lobbyist for Nature Conservancy. ?… You would think that they would want to err on the side of debating such a bill.?

Sen. Don Gaetz, the Niceville Republican who chaired the conference committee, defended the move after the meeting.

? would believe that any of these matters, if they were separate bills, would pass the Senate,?he said.

The bill in question also includes a sweeping overhaul of economic development and workforce agencies. It would combine the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development with portions of the Department of Community Affairs and the Agency for Workforce Innovation to create a new Department of Economic Opportunity.

Committees working on education spending also drew closer to an agreement. Per-student spending on public schools was expected to be cut by about 7.9 percent, though the final number will be hammered out by Alexander and Grimsley.

Lawmakers didn? agree on a plan, pushed by lead Senate negotiator David Simmons, R-Maitland, to give extra money to schools with persistenly low grades to provide an additional hour in the school day for reading and math.

Lawmakers tasked with hammering out a deal on higher education were able to agree on Bright Futures and other financial aid programs after two days of negotiations. But differences on PECO funding, used to pay for new construction and maintenance of university buildings, went unresolved.

Both chambers also agreed to continue the toughened Bright Futures eligibility requirements that were started last year, rather than accelerating them, and to require applicants to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to gather information about the income levels of the students getting the awards.

Lawmakers also settled on spending a little more than $8 million on funding for historically black private colleges. That? much closer to the original House position, which budgeted $7.3 million in funding, and an increase from what both chambers had originally offered.

Large gaps remained on the health-care portion of the budget, where few agreements were made before House and Senate negotiators forwarded the work to Alexander and Grimsley. A deal on justice spending largely hinged on how many prisons would be turned over to private corporations and how much in projected savings would be included in the budget.

?nce you handle the privatization issues, the rest of it will sort itself out,?Alexander said.

Less clear: When or if Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, might take over negotiations. Over the last two years, former House Speaker Larry Cretul preferred allowing Alexander and his House counterparts to negotiate long past when the issues were supposed to be bumped to the presiding officers.

? would hope, by noon tomorrow, we?e really narrowed many of these issues,?Alexander said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.