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Budget End Game Begins

Money for libraries, top environmental programs and economic development cash were settled Friday by House and Senate budget negotiators, who also plan to set aside at least $1.2 billion in reserves for the year ahead.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and his House counterpart, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, agreed to put $10 million into Everglades restoration and $15 million to the Florida Forever land-buying program, amounts close to levels advanced earlier by the Senate.

The money is a straight cash injection into the programs, and not to be used as collateral for bonds, which Gov. Charlie Crist and environmentalists earlier sought. But with the state’s debt now at a record $26.4 billion – costing taxpayers $2.1 billion last year just to maintain – lawmakers are cautious about adding to this red ink.

Libraries would receive $11.8 million, just over half of what the Senate had earlier wanted. But the level was an agreed-upon amount, although Alexander left open the possibility of more money coming that way.

The amount earmarked for libraries threatens millions of dollars in federal grants. And Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, joined Alexander in saying he hoped to increase the cash.

“We’re going to have to make some very hard decisions,” Atwater said, adding, “In the end we don’t know how they’ll all play…we’ll do everything we can to bring that number closer” to a $20-million-plus level needed to qualify for grants.

The House also pushed hard for economic development money – getting the Senate to approve $14.2 million for the Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development in the governor’s office, and for the agency’s quick action closing fund used to entice businesses to the recession-wracked state.

The decisions set the stage for budget talks to continue through the weekend, with Rivera and Alexander looking to complete their work Monday. Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, will get the last say on remaining details before the $69-billion budget is buttoned-up, likely by Tuesday.

Still to be finalized are dozens of issues, among the biggest being per-pupil school funding – which lawmakers have said will stay at roughly this year’s $6,866 level. Proposed reductions in state personnel costs, and making some state workers and legislators pay for now-free health care coverage are still to be decided. Also, a host of health and human services measures must be set – including proposed cuts in state payments to nursing homes and funding for mental health services.

A $70 million jobs and economic development package – built mostly on tax-incentives for businesses and roughly $30 million to attract commercial launches to the beleaguered Space Coast – is coming together, said Senate sponsor, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
But languishing as lawmakers head into the final scheduled weekend of the session is the wide-ranging Medicaid overhaul. Serious talks between the House and Senate have never emerged on a compromise between the divergent plans, and Atwater ruled the matter all-but-dead.

“Long-term, there is no greater fiscal challenge for Florida than dealing with Medicaid over the next three to five years,” Atwater said. He added, “But yes, you’d have to see an end-game by Monday.”

Also fading away, after drawing much attention earlier in the session: The Senate’s demand for breaking up the Department of Management Services and scattering its duties across several other agencies, and the House’s push to revamp the Department of Health.

Told the move didn’t appear to be happening, Atwater responded, “You may be right.”

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