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Weekly Roundup: Lots of Fight Left in Greer and Budget

The House and Senate headed into the homestretch of the two-month session about $2.2 billion apart in their budget plans – with the Legislature’s closing weeks certain to be filled with dust-ups over efforts to bridge the gulf.

Ousted Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer also showed that he wasn’t willing to head quietly off-stage – suing the state’s ruling party over a disputed $123,000 severance package he insists he’s owed. The week also marked the opening of a criminal investigation of Greer for allegedly skimming-off campaign contributions from the state GOP.

While their intra-party squabble continues to flare, Republicans had more success driving state spending plans through the two chambers they dominate. But just as with the Greer scandal, in the coming weeks, something’s got to give between the House and Senate.

The Senate’s $69.4 billion proposed spending plan is fattened like an Easter ham with extra federal stimulus money and gambling cash – $1.3 billion that helped boost school spending, avoid deep health-care and social services cuts, while maintaining environmental programs this election year.

The only catch: The $1.3 billion doesn’t really exist, at least not yet.

When lawmakers return to the Capitol next week, they’ll be eagerly watching Congress as they await approval of the already spent stimulus cash. Although a Seminole Indian gambling compact has drawn no public discussion this session, senators have already rolled the dice and spent the more than $400 million expected from a deal.

House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, has defended the House’s $67.2 billion budget plan – containing none of the hoped-for money – as being more realistic. While the Senate plan won support from Democrats, the austere House proposal was shunned by the minority party, which accused Republicans of failing to consider gaining more revenue by closing corporate tax breaks.

The Senate’s chief budget-writer, J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said his approach should be easier to sell – if the dollars come in.

“Do you provide for these funds in the budget and show where they’ll be spent? I think that makes a case for why these revenues are important,” Alexander said.

With scores of spending differences separating the House and Senate – and even a budget bottom-line failing to near a consensus, plenty of work faces lawmakers.

But other potential areas of agreement surfaced through action the past week.

Amid budget debate, the Senate unveiled 16 lines of proviso effectively amounting to Florida declaring its independence from the federal Medicaid program. The Senate wants federal officials to grant the state a waiver so Florida health officials could cap Medicaid spending at roughly the current $19 billion level, make patients pay co-payments and deductibles, and steer more low-income Floridians into Medicaid managed care.

The Senate is already looking to expand a five-county pilot program that relies heavily on managed care to an additional 19 counties, adding about 250,000 new patients to the 1 million already in Medicaid HMOs.

The House hasn’t moved on the idea. But next week it is expected to unveil its own approach to reining-in Medicaid spending, which now consumes a quarter of the state budget and is on track to demand 36 percent of the Florida budget by decade’s end.

Like the Senate, the House also will rely heavily on managed care, over opposition from most Democrats, hospitals, nursing homes and groups representing health care consumers.

Similarly, the House next week plans to join the Senate in its push to weaken the grip of the Democratic-allied Florida Education Association, and push a plan that would make it easier for school districts to unload poor-performing teachers, while rewarding better instructors with merit pay.

Like most Republican-backed education strategies, the approach relies heavily on student scores on standardized tests as an evaluation method. Democrats have howled about the proposals – one sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who doubles as the state’s Republican Party chairman.

Another Democratic constituency, state workers, also are being dinged up in the budget plans advancing – with a pay-cut looming in the House plan, the Senate removing free health benefits from 27,000 mid-level managers, other workers and lawmakers, and both sides agreeing to demand public employees to contribute to the pension plans.

A pair of state agencies also look likely to undergo dramatic overhauls in the session’s final weeks. The Senate last week agreed to break-up the Department of Management Services and scatter its duties across several other agencies, while the House is seeking to revamp the Department of Health.

Watch for both agencies to meet on the chopping block by session’s end.

Still, it wasn’t all about muscle-flexing by Republican lawmakers last week. There was that internal anxiety over Greer.

By week’s end, Republican Gov. Charlie Crist and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, the state’s chief financial officer, had agreed that a state-ordered investigation of Greer should actually be referred to U.S. Attorney Thomas Kirwin, distancing Republican elected officials from a probe of one of their own.

Crist even offered the grounds for a possible criminal case against Greer: “potential IRS implications,” the governor cited in a Friday letter responding to Sink’s call for an outside prosecutor.

President Obama may have caught Florida Democrats offguard last week by proposing to open a large swath of the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling, after most state lawmakers in the party had locked arms in opposition to a Republican-backed initiative to drill in state coastal waters.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has long fought any Gulf drilling plans, was forced to find ways not to sound dismissive of the president’s plan. Nelson said he wanted Defense Secretary Robert Gates to “look me in the eye,” and say the proposal doesn’t interfere with military training in the region.”

Nelson said it also should “derail the scheme in the Florida Legislature to drill three miles offshore.”

But it took Republican Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach to really put that notion to rest, saying he had no plans this session to take up the near-shore drilling proposal by House Speaker-designate Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, despite Obama’s green-light in the deeper Gulf.

“I’m not sure from what I’ve read in the headlines, that it’s enough to suggest that we get moving,” Atwater said.

For 40 minutes last Sunday morning, Crist and Republican U.S. Senate primary opponent Marco Rubio sparred on Fox-TV over health care, the federal stimulus package, Republican Party credit cards, immigration and their records in state government. For candidates seeking to represent the party of Lincoln, the “world will little note, nor long remember” what the two contenders said. But it was their first face-to-face contest in an already long campaign.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Budgets, big and small.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “It was a mistake. Things happen in this process,” said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach, after the House mangled an attempt to keep legislative salaries at their current levels, accidently increasing their own pay by 4 percent. The glitch will be fixed in negotiations with the Senate, Hasner assured.

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