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Appropriations chiefs sound hopeful as clock ticks on state budget negotiations

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With two weeks and change remaining in the 2017 Legislative Session, House and Senate budget leaders are professing optimism that they can resolve their differences and adjourn on time May 5.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo — and Jack Latvala, his Senate counterpart — both said Thursday they hope to begin formal budget conference negotiations soon.

“We have to. If not, we’re running out of time,” Trujillo told reporters.

The process is driven by “just the natural timetable for sine die May 5,” he said.

“It (the budget) needs to rest on the table for 72 hours prior to that. We want to give ample time for debate, for members to analyze it, to study it. We have to give proper time to conference. We’re really, really getting towards that line in the sand that we need to start moving.”

“I think we’re making good progress,” Latvala said.

“I think we need to start in conference by the first of the week in order to get done on time,” he said. “But I have every confidence that we will do that at this point — which is different from my opinion the first part of this week. We’ve made a lot of progress.”

The chambers are $3.8 billion apart on spending.

Among their differences is what to do about a Trump administration promise of $1.5 billion for a low income pool, or LIP program, compensating hospitals for treating charity patients. The Senate budget includes $600 million for the program. The House bill does not.

Trujillo has been talking about spreading that money around elsewhere, possibly in tax cuts. House leaders cite projections for stagnant growth in tax revenues next year and declining returns going forward.

“Do we really think, going into years of economic recession, we should be growing the budget, or do you think we should be saving money?” Trujillo asked.

Not only that — state leaders haven’t seen the “terms and conditions” the administration plans to impose on the LIP money, he said.

That information should arrive next week, he added.

Presuming it arrives in time, “that’s unencumbered general revenue and should be spent in any part of the budget,” Trujillo said.

Gov. Rick Scott has proposed that the LIP infusion could free $200 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee, and to boost funding for Visit Florida to $100 million. The House wants to spend one-quarter of that amount on the tourism agency.

“It’s pretty late in the session,” Trujillo said. “We hadn’t heard about that until last week. If you look at the governor’s proposed budget, it had about $76 million for Visit Florida and no money for the dike. I think it will be very difficult, given the late stage.”

Fixing water overflows from the lake — and related discharges of toxic algae — are a top priority for Senate President Joe Negron. SB 10 would earmark $1.5 billion to address the problem through measures including construction of reservoirs south of the lake — an element Scott endorsed.

“Scott’s support always helps,” Latvala said.

But he was unwilling to predict how the governor’s proposal would play.

“I can’t tell you what the other 39 guys in the Senate will agree to. I think everything as it pertains to SB 10, and the intentions and our reasons for doing it and our goals, I’m very, very happy with the way it’s all working out.”

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, asked during his regular Thursday afternoon news conference about using the LIP money, shared Trujillio’s skepticism.

“I hate to always say this, but show us the money,” Corcoran said.

“I do know that, just like the governor, the president does not have authorization to spend — that is wholly within the jurisdiction of the legislature, and I don’t think they’ve done that,” he said.

Trujillo saw areas where the House could move toward the Senate’s position. “There are a lot of areas in the budget, absolutely,” he said.

Required local effort isn’t one of them. The Senate wants to leave mandatory local property tax levels where they are, to capture rising property values for the schools; the House sees that as a tax increase.

“We won’t raise taxes,” Trujillo said. Otherwise, “we’re committed to considering their priorities. And we hope that they’re committed to considering ours.”

“I’m really not going to get into the conversations that we’re having,” Latvala said. “I find it better just to have those conversations and announce a result. But I’m very happy with the way those conversations are going.”

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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