TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (The News Service of Florida) - Even as rumors of a last-minute spending deal circulated in the Capitol, the House Appropriations Committee voted Tuesday morning to move forward with a bare-bones budget in an attempt to avoid a special legislative session --- or at least the blame for one.
The panel voted along party lines, 19-10, to approve an $82.1 billion "standard operating budget" (PCB APC 17-06). The measure would essentially carry over current state spending levels, with some increases for critical areas like public education and Medicaid funding, to the budget year that begins July 1.
The plan has virtually no chance of becoming law; Senate leaders have already slammed the House's approach as "ineffectual."
House Republicans said the unusual maneuver, coming just a week before lawmakers must agree on a budget or move into legislative overtime, could help avoid a special or extended session. The regular session is scheduled to end May 5, but lawmakers would need to have a budget done by May 2 because of a constitutionally required “cooling off period.”
"It's really the safety valve," said House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. "Could we get a budget done in the next 10 days? Possibly. But if we don't, this is our safety valve."
But Democrats blasted the proposal as a sham. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, called the plan "just strategy and posturing." Most of the Democrats who spoke on the bill rattled off a list of projects serving needy Floridians that would be pared from the budget in a drive to remove all one-time spending.
They also echoed the attacks of Senate Republicans, who have compared the House's new plan to the budget gymnastics of Congress.
"This is House leadership trying to turn Tallahassee into Washington, D.C., where we kick our problems down the road because we don't have the will to solve them. ... By passing this budget, we are essentially admitting that we have wasted the taxpayers' time and money on two months of grandiose speeches and posturing with nothing to show for it," said House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa.
Republicans responded by saying they were doing the best they could as time ran short on the session and that they intentionally avoided trying to discern which projects were worthy of inclusion in a last-ditch budget meant to keep the lights on.
"I'm sorry if your personal pet projects are getting cut in this, but that is not a compelling state interest, and it is not something that the constituents of the state of Florida need to participate in," said Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford.
All the while, rumors were swirling that House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, were closing in on an agreement on the broad outlines of a budget deal. Join House-Senate negotiating committees would later fill in the details.
In what some took as a sign that the real budget action might be elsewhere, the top aide to the House Appropriations Committee didn't attend the meeting Tuesday morning. Trujillo told reporters she was in her office.
But during remarks to the committee, Trujillo seemed to criticize where negotiations were going over the weekend, before talks stalled and the House announced it would move forward with the plan approved Tuesday.
"The one thing that we will not do, and I think all of us will agree, is bankrupt the state," Trujillo said. "And I can tell you, some of the negotiations, that's exactly where we're heading. ... I can tell you the budget that we were negotiating would ruin the state."
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Trujillo said he didn't know exactly where the negotiations between Corcoran and Negron stood. The next step for the new budget would be a decision by the House Rules & Policy Committee to put it before the full House; that panel was scheduled to meet Tuesday evening.
As for whether a final budget deal could be completed in a week if Corcoran and Negron reached an agreement on the outlines later Tuesday, Trujillo said time was tight.
"We do (have time) but it would be a very, very, very expedited calendar," he said.