Environmental Budget Talks Falter

Dan Environment, Florida, Industry News Release

by Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
water negronNegotiations between the House and Senate about funding for environmental and water programs imploded Saturday, as talks over a new state budget moved up the ladder ahead of a Tuesday deadline.

A visibly irritated Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, announced Saturday that he would ask for all of the issues that once separated the House and the Senate on the agriculture and natural resources budget to be kicked up to the two chambers’ budget chiefs.

That means all the issues that Bradley, who chairs the Senate’s environmental budget panel, worked out with House counterpart Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula, are back to being unresolved.

House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, will now have to work out the entirety of the environmental budget. They will also make decisions across the roughly $83 billion spending plan, after issues that couldn’t be resolved by other House-Senate committees “bumped” up to the two chairmen Saturday afternoon.

Trujillo and Latvala were scheduled to hold their first meeting at 7 p.m. Saturday to discuss education issues. Lawmakers face a Tuesday deadline to finish the budget if they hope to end the legislative session as scheduled Friday. The state Constitution requires a 72-hour “cooling off” period before lawmakers can vote on the budget, which will take effect July 1.

The blow-up in the talks between Bradley and Albritton came as Bradley underscored alleged gamesmanship by the House.

environmentalFor example, on one land-buying item, the House started out at $10 million. After the Senate’s first offer included no money for that, the House moved to $14.5 million. In its second offer, the Senate accepted that figure — only to see the House move back to $10 million.

“I think it just is a situation where this was destined to fail from the beginning,” Bradley told reporters afterward. “This budget was never going to work out in any meaningful way.”

Albritton denied there was any attempt by the House to play games. He noted that the House initially had less funding for the total environmental budget than lawmakers ultimately agreed to spend. That, for example, was why the House started the process with a lower figure on another line item, beach projects, but ended up proposing more than the Senate.

“It just shows beaches are important to the House,” Albritton said.

Spending on the environment has been a top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and water projects are often used for leverage in the budget process. But Albritton brushed aside any notion that higher-ranking lawmakers interfered in the negotiations, saying he hadn’t spoken to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, about the new offer and had only briefly talked with Trujillo.

Still, Bradley and Albritton professed admiration for each other, and at one point of the final meeting, Albritton reach over to pat Bradley on the shoulder as the Senate chairman vented about the shifting amounts.

Elsewhere, lawmakers found common ground. Very little of the education budget has moved to Trujillo and Latvala, after two years in which large swaths of school spending headed to the second round of spending talks.

Lawmakers were still trying to work out how to spend almost $414 million set aside to encourage charter schools to move into areas with academically struggling schools and to expand eligibility for the state’s “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus program.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House education budget committee, said lawmakers had to be careful on an issue like Best and Brightest, where the setting of certain eligibility standards would decide how many teachers qualify and how large the bonus would be for each one.

“I think that the math there is pretty complex, and we want to make sure we get it right as well,” he said.

Higher education was also largely hammered out, though some specific aspects were still in the air.

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