Monday, May 4, 2009

Florida budget talks continue as issues narrow

Associated Press Writer

College students who get state scholarships would be spared paying more for their education under an agreement lawmakers made in budget talks Saturday.
The Legislature's top budget negotiators began meeting to finish the last details of the spending plan for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1 and is expected to be more than $65 billion. Other lawmakers settled most differences during the past week, but the hardest-to-resolve issues remained.

Lawmakers agreed not to cut the amount of Bright Futures scholarships, which paid all or part of 160,000 Florida college students' tuition last year. Lawmakers had discussed saving the state $7 million by reducing the amount of the scholarships by 1 percent. They had already agreed that students will have to pay an 8 percent tuition increase.

In a series of meetings throughout the day, the Senate's chief negotiator, JD Alexander, exchanged offers with House budget leaders David Rivera and Marcelo Llorente, both Miami Republicans, but a number issues remained unresolved Saturday afternoon.

"This is an interesting process, as everybody knows," Gov. Charlie Crist said when he stopped at the Capitol to check on the talks early in the day. "You're never really sure what ends up in and what ends up out until they finish and put it on the desk."

Lawmakers, for example, were trying to restore money for environmental issues the governor has repeatedly pushed - Everglades restoration and the state's land conservation program, Florida Forever. Going into the weekend's conference, Florida Forever money had been stripped from the budget, but the issue reappeared Saturday. The Senate proposed spending $25 million each on Florida Forever and Everglades restoration.

Negotiations also brought up restoring money to public libraries. Earlier in the week, lawmakers cut more than $20 million in library money the Florida Library Association said would result in some library branches closing.

The House also suggested as part of negotiations requiring all first-time drivers to take a class before getting a license. Course fees would go to the Florida Highway Patrol.

While the negotiations brought up additional issues, lawmakers did come to consensus on many items. They agreed, for example, to cut money spent on drug treatment for people on probation and parole. And they decided not to spend $50,000 on educating students about Haitian-American history.

Still outstanding late Saturday were agreements on sensitive issues like whether community colleges and universities should be able to use state money for travel to Cuba and on stem cell research. The biggest issue, however, is expanding gambling to raise money for the state.

Any issues Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his house counterparts can't settle by Sunday afternoon will be decided at the highest level by House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, and Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

Late Saturday the budget negotiators agreed to send four justice issues to the chamber heads, including the question of whether to privatize a new prison in Suwannee County in north Florida. Privatizing the prison, which is nearing completion and would house many of the state's most dangerous and violent offenders, would save the state some $2.6 million annually.

A final vote on the budget is expected Friday, a week after the normal close of lawmakers' 60-day session which was extended to finish the budget.

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