Saturday, April 25, 2009

Florida budget compromise difficult task

State awaits answers as anxiety builds up

By Bill Cotterell and Jim Ash Tallahassee bureau

TALLAHASSEE - From a big Wall Street bond-rating house to a Miami-area tobacco company, from the ranks of police and prison guards to the executive suites of Florida universities, the legislative budget standoff caused grim concern Thursday.

"I still think it's possible to get out on time" May 1, said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "But I don't think this budget is like good whisky - it doesn't get better as it gets older."

The House and Senate passed divergent $65 billion-plus budgets Friday but no joint conferences have been held because the presiding officers can't settle on distributions. They have to work out new revenues and spending cuts each side will accept, notably a $1-per-pack cigarette-tax increase the Senate wants.

The House Majority Office notified members Friday that Moody's Investors Service has put Florida bonds on its "downgrade watch list." Lowering the rating would cost taxpayers hundreds of millions, even billions, in interest costs over several years. House Republicans insist on steeper cuts to spending to preserve the credit rating.

Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, said most members were not worried about the secrecy of the leadership's phone calls and infrequent small huddles with few members.

"This is the way it works," said Workman. "We had a month and a half to put our two-cents worth in and now they're doing some private talks. "

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, said time is running out. The session is due to adjourn May 1 and the budget has to sit on members desks for 72 hours before a vote, meaning a compromise is needed by Tuesday.

"If it gets into a contentious area of disagreement, there's no way we'll finish on time," said Dean. "I think we need to have a transparency, to be able to represent to my constituents - a half-million people that expect me to know what's going on."

Yolanda Nader, chief executive of Dosal Tobacco in Opa-locka, said she was closing the cigarette plant to bring all 120 of her employees to Tallahassee today to fight the cigarette tax - along with about 150 employees of cigarette distributors whose jobs she said are threatened by the tax hike.

"They're very afraid of losing their jobs," she said.

So are state employees, who face pay cuts and layoffs. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has a rally set at the Capitol today.

The Police Benevolent Association warned against privatizing 531 jobs at the Suwannee Correctional Facility, eliminating 69 probation jobs and closing 14 regional offices of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

In a meeting with Senate Democrats, budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, outlined the sticking points. The Senate balked at House proposals to slash university and community college budgets by about $500 million, while most House members disliked the $1 billion cigarette tax the Senate sought.

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