TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Lawmakers began meeting as joint House and Senate negotiating committees late Monday, starting a weeklong sprint to craft a final spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

Because of a requirement that the final proposal be finished 72 hours before the House and Senate vote on it, budget writers face an April 29 deadline for completing a blueprint that will likely check in at around $75 billion. That would allow lawmakers to end the annual session on time May 2.

Legislative leaders say most of the key decisions have already been made, from an agreement to spend $500 million on tax and fee cuts to a commitment to provide the largest total funding for public education in state history. But there are still details to be worked out, including which taxes and fees to reduce beyond an already-approved cut in vehicle registration charges and how to dole out millions of dollars for projects tucked into the budget for legislators’ districts.

Lawmakers paved the way for the meetings to begin by agreeing on “allocations” — essentially, how to divvy up the almost $27.6 billion in general revenue that lawmakers will spend. Other state and federal moneys are added to bring the budget to its final size.

“I hope everybody’s rested up and had a good week off,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said during a meeting to kick off the negotiating sessions. “We’ve got a lot to do in the next two weeks.”

For Monday evening, at least, the mood was jovial. Weatherford joked that the House’s role in hosting this year’s conference meant the Senate would agree to his chamber’s ideas —prompting Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, to playfully threaten a Senate walkout.

Smaller groups of legislators, focused on budget areas like education and health care, will have until Wednesday evening to try to come to agreements on those portions of the spending plan. After that, House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, will meet to hammer out remaining disagreements.

But Gaetz told reporters after the meeting that he didn’t believe that would force McKeel and Negron to make more decisions than usual.

“If we were starting five country miles apart, I think your question would be well-placed,” he said. “But I think we’re starting fairly close. And we made the decision to break for the Passover and Easter holiday, and we knew that meant that when we got back, we wouldn’t have time for fancy courting, we’d have to get down to business, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Gaetz added that there were “no insurmountable issues” facing lawmakers.

Helping out were state revenues that continue to recover from the 2008 economic downturn that hammered the state budget, as well as an eagerness to give lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott an election-year boost with popular spending programs.

No breakthroughs were expected Monday, with committees meeting to go through the motions of appointing chairs and trading initial offers.

This report is by Brandon Larrabee with The News Service of Florida.


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