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Unresolved budget issues start moving upstairs


THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, February 29, 2016..........Haggling over the finer points of a new state budget began moving upstairs Monday, as lawmakers worked to complete a deal on a spending plan set to weigh in around $80 billion.

Differences continued to narrow on the last day when small groups of lawmakers could huddle together to deal with specific areas of the budget, which must be finished by March 8 for the annual legislative session to end on time.

But other issues couldn't be solved before they were kicked to the next stage of negotiations, handled by House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

The House and Senate agreed on more than $96 million for Everglades restoration funding in meetings on agriculture and land-preservation spending.

Meanwhile, dividing lines emerged, often on lawmakers' pet projects and other seemingly minor spending initiatives sprinkled throughout the bill. One committee failed to come to an agreement on $7 million to replace radio equipment for law enforcement.

"The agencies are not clamoring for these radios," said Sen. Alan Hays, a Umatilla Republican involved in the negotiations. "This is the vendor that wants the radios to be sold to the state."

Hays said talks about replacements should be put off until the state renews its current contract or negotiates a new one. But his House counterpart said the contract wasn't set to expire for another five years.

"The House's position is that we want to make sure that our law enforcement has access to the best technology to keep themselves safe and the citizens of the state of Florida safe," said Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami.

Meanwhile, a committee working on criminal-justice spending struggled to come to terms with another issue of law enforcement equipment: a $1 million grant program for police body cameras, something being pushed by the Senate.

And lawmakers working on the economic-development budget appeared to draw near the end of their work. The budget still includes several proposed local projects that Corcoran and Lee will handle.

"We feel like ... as far as projects, we've probably done as much movement as we can do from each side," said Rep. Clay Ingram, a Pensacola Republican heading up those efforts for the House.

The two sides are also separated on whether to set aside $6 million in state tourism funding to promote and market films and about how much to spend on a financing program for the space industry.

Overall, talks seemed to be progressing after negotiations on public school spending broke down late Sunday and sent large portions of the education budget to Corcoran and Lee.

House negotiators working on the education proposal rejected a complicated Senate offer that would have closed out several but not all of the remaining issues between the two chambers. The Senate plan was a "contingency offer," which meant that the House could either accept it in whole and move forward with the talks, or turn it down.

The only area of agreement between the two sides on education is a plan to keep property owners from seeing increases in their local education tax bills despite rising property values.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Fresen said the breakdown had less to do with any components of the budget issues than with his ability to make the math work on a counteroffer.

"Most of the issues, although the entire budget's getting bumped, are closer than what it would seem," Fresen said.

Corcoran and Lee were expected to take over discussions on Monday evening, but some of the subcommittees were allowed to continue meeting past a 6 p.m. deadline. It's not clear when the appropriations chairmen could have their first get-together.

The annual legislative session is scheduled to end March 11, but the budget needs to be done 72 hours earlier because of a required review period. The budget will detail spending for the fiscal year that starts July 1.