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Budget Spares Crisis Pregnancy Centers, Big Issues Still on Table

Legislative budget leaders knocked a few health care items off the table and closed in on an agreement on the education budget Saturday, but remain undecided on major questions including benefits for state workers and the overall fate of Medicaid.

But the Senate agreed Saturday afternoon with a House position that spares pregnancy crisis centers, which had faced a $1 million cut, and earlier Saturday, put $250,000 in the budget for rape counseling, money that had been uncertain going into the weekend.

“It seemed like the thing to do,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman JD Alexander about funding the pregnancy crisis centers.

Alexander and House Appropriations Chairman David Rivera, and possibly the presiding officers of the Legislature still have a lot to work out, including a broad agreement on Medicaid spending, the issues surrounding pay and retirement benefits for state workers.

On Sunday, Alexander and Rivera will meet at 8:30 a.m., and agreed to move back until 5 p.m. Sunday the time when they plan to give up and send the remaining items to Senate President Jeff Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul.

The negotiators have the hospital Low Income Pool program still to be decided, along with some education implementing language, and the overall Medicaid question - issues where they remain far apart.

“It's coming along pretty well, though,” Alexander said following an afternoon meeting.

On a relatively small, but closely-watched budget issue, the Senate on Saturday offered the House $7.5 million to finance a dozen mental health, substance abuse and other local projects tucked into the budget by House members, several of them in Miami-Dade County where House budget chief David Rivera, R-Miami, is a candidate for Congress. The Senate offer is about half the $13.8 million sought by the House.

The Senate also offered to meet the House half way on the Healthy Start program for prenatal intervention, proposing a $1.3 million reduction after the House had proposed a $2.6 million cut.

The Senate agreed Saturday to eliminate money for another small program, but one that has drawn attention in the past, a subsidy for state employees who want to adopt children. Alexander said later that there appeared to be plenty of state workers willing to adopt and their decision wasn't hinging on whether they got a little extra cash.

Also on Saturday, the House agreed to let the Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Santa Rosa County open. The privavely-built prison has been vacant, but under the latest version of the budget the state would move prisoners from state facilities into Blackwater. The move has been opposed by the union that represents correctional workers.

The House and Senate had no plans to meet again Saturday evening with Alexander and Rivera hoping to close out the rest on Sunday or bump remaining issues to the leaders, who hope to have an agreed-on budget on lawmakers' desks Monday.

There was no chance of a Saturday night meeting - Alexander was heading home to see his daughter in a high school play with a plan to turn around and fly back in the morning. “I missed her prom, I saw the pictures, she looked wonderful,” Alexander said.

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