Legislative leaders now weighing endgame

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With different versions of the budget having cleared both the House and Senate and two crucial court rulings looming, legislative leaders have begun gaming out the endgame for the 2012 session, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, suggested Monday the end of the session could hinge on three factors:

–The success of budget negotiations currently underway between House and Senate leaders. Those initial agreements on allocations for each area of state spending have to be hammered out before more detailed negotiations can begin; lawmakers have about a week to strike a deal.

–The Supreme Court’s review of the Legislature’s proposed maps for the House and Senate. The review is part of the once-a-decade redistricting process, but is viewed as less predictable this year because of the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts Amendments approved by voters in a November 2010 referendum. A final decision is required by the March 9 finale of the session.

–A pending decision from Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford about whether lawmakers last year improperly changed state law to require state employees to contribute to their pension plan and eliminated cost-of-living increases for future work.

The only matter directly in lawmakers’ hands, of course, is how to bridge differences between the two chambers about the size and mechanics of the state budget. The Senate wants to steer hundreds of millions of dollars in motorist fees to the state transportation trust fund and wants to force universities to dip into their reserves to cover a $400 million cut in the higher education budget; the House is hesitant about both.

“The Senate has some priorities, and we want to make sure those priorities are met,” Haridopolos said.

The Senate president sidestepped a question about whether the House seems supportive of a plan to turn the Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida into an independent Florida Polytechnic University — a priority of Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

“I would hope that the House shows a lot of respect for that decision and it seems to me that the community of Central Florida and the West Coast, in Tampa, have now accepted the deal,” Haridopolos said. “I would think it only natural the House would do the same.”

For his part, Alexander sounded confident about the prospects of getting the budget done on time, saying negotiations over the weekend — and outside the public eye — had resolved many of the issues between the chambers.

“Just got a couple more we need to finish ironing out with our colleagues,” Alexander said.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, acknowledged she’d heard the rumors that senators want to delay approving a budget. But she said she has not seen any indication that Alexander shares that view. She said she hopes “common sense will prevail at the end of the day.”

As for redistricting, Haridopolos’ comments suggested lawmakers could opt for an extended session instead of a special session to deal with the issue — depending on how wide-ranging the court’s ruling is. Small tweaks could be handled in a matter of days, he said.

“If it’s wholesale change … we could be here awhile,” Haridopolos said.

As for pensions, House Speaker Dean Cannon said last week that he saw no reason for the Legislature to begin planning for the possibility of an adverse ruling by Fulford, who struck down a prison privatization provision of the budget last year and seemed openly skeptical of the pension language in a hearing.

“Depending on how Judge Fulford rules, that’s the first ruling by a single trial judge, and there’s at least two appellate layers and months and months of appeals that would likely follow any adverse ruling,” said Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Haridopolos said he didn’t want to leave the future of the contribution and cost-of-living changes — projected to save more than $860 million a year — “in limbo” if Fulford overturns the measures.

“It’s such a big amount of money that you can’t just kind of push it aside,” he 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.