Politics

Budget Bill Deal Or No Deal At Center Of Chaotic Session End

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(Source: CBS4)

(Source: CBS4)

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Legislative Session Coverage

TALLAHASSEE  (CBS4)- The 2011 legislative session briefly careened off the track before crashing to an end early Saturday morning amid an intraparty GOP fracas over the nearly $70 billion budget.

Gone were the usual end-of-session celebrations where lawmakers met in the center of the Capitol to congratulate each other and tout their accomplishments. In their place: A mish-mash of procedural maneuvers and a Legislature dominated by a Republican Party that seemed at war with itself.

Gov. Rick Scott, scheduled to bask in the glow of a relatively successful first session, instead went home before the final gavel fell.

“We thought we were going to bring it in, and it didn’t happen,” a somber Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said shortly after the midnight deadline for ending the session on time passed.

That came after the Legislature temporarily extended the session through Saturday as a last-ditch effort at finding agreement. Instead, it seemed to lay bare the divisions that existed.

The trouble began Friday evening, when the Senate voted down, on a 32-6 vote, a pared-down deregulation conforming bill that had been a key priority of the House. Many lawmakers saw that bill as emblematic of a process that had used budget conforming bills to ram through proposals that might otherwise have trouble.

“In the future, if you’re going to have deregulation, do it the right way,” said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. Jones, the dean of the Legislature, openly disdained the House process and blamed it on the other chamber’s relative inexperience.

House leaders, who saw all of the bills as part of a tightly-wound deal between the two chambers, then began to balk at a tax-cut bill that contained a provision some said would expand the kinds of gambling that pari-mutuels could offer.

“When the Senate killed one and then another one of those, that sent a very disconcerting signal,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. ” … We felt at least their inability or refusal to do two of the committee bills justified taking out one objectionable provision and passing all of the other conforming bills down.”

The House took all of the non-gambling provisions of the tax relief bill, which included popular measures like a sales-tax holiday for school supplies, and tacked them onto another bill (HB 143) that had disappeared in conference. After the House adjourned for the last time in 2011, the Senate was left with no other option but to pass the House bill.

The upper chamber did approve the bill, on a 33-3 vote — bringing the session to an end at 3:35 a.m. ET — but not before taking a few shots at the House.

“I’m just glad, as a senator, that I’m following a true leader,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

The fight served as an embarrassing illustration of the limits of the GOP’s overwhelming majority, which includes veto-proof margins in the House and Senate. Haridopolos, a candidate for U.S. Senate, and Cannon had also frequently boasted of how a close friendship had helped them navigate the sometimes rocky process of closing out a budget deal.

“They’re starting to reach the point where it’s not the party, it’s the power,” said House Minority Leader Ron Saunders after the House’s final, raucous meeting came to an end.

Saunders said the feud was an outgrowth of the House’s continuing insistence to meld policy with the budget, including Cannon’s alleged willingness to bring budget negotiations to a grinding halt to force the Senate to move on his bill to overhaul the Florida Supreme Court.

“I think the Senate finally got tired of the House jamming them on things,” Saunders said.

By the end of Saturday’s extraordinary early-morning session, senators were already working to dismiss the notion that they had been beaten again.

“This is one little minor issue, and nobody should go away from here thinking that one house beat the other house,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who had long pushed for the gambling tax measure at the center of the uproar. “The people of Florida won with this budget.”

Afterward, Thrasher said removing the provision allowing dog tracks to add ‘arcade’ games from the final bill was not a problem.

“Nothing’s hurt,” he said. “It wasn’t in before. It’s not in now.”

Content to sit out the Republicans’ circular firing squad, Democrats spent the day ripping the budget as a closing volley in a session-long GOP assault on middle-class families and state workers at the behest of its conservative base.

“It’s a tea party train wreck,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “What guided the principles of this chamber was the Republican Party primary of 2012.”

Republicans countered that they had done their best in the face of a $3.75 billion shortfall. They admitted that many of the choices were difficult to make.

“But the one thing we didn’t want to do was raise taxes on those people who could least afford it,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.

By the end of the day, most of those arguments were long forgotten. And as he stood on the dais in the final moments of a chaotic endgame, Haridopolos reflected on claims bills for Eric Brody, a man severely injured by a police deputy 13 years ago, and William Dillon, who spent years in prison after a wrongful conviction. Both measures ran out of time on the last day, as Brody’s family looked on from the House gallery.

“They should have been served better today by this Legislature, and the fact that we”re going to be heading home in a few minutes is sometimes a sad statement on politics,” Haridopolos said. “Politics got in the way today. And I?m embarrassed for it.”

(The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)

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