Florida Legislature crafts secret budget deal to end session

- Florida's top Republican legislative leaders said Wednesday that they finally reached a deal on a new budget that should clear the way for them to end their session early next week.

But that roughly $83 billion budget was crafted largely in secret - and may now draw the veto of fellow Republican Gov. Rick Scott - who has repeatedly criticized legislators for putting together a spending plan that he maintains could cost the state jobs and harm the economy. The Florida Legislature still hasn't released all the details.

"I haven't seen it, have you seen it?" Scott asked reporters during a stop in Tampa. "None of us have seen it. There are just a few people, you know, back-door, who are deciding the budget for the entire state."

Scott has called on legislators to set aside $100 million for tourism marketing and $200 million to fix a dike around Lake Okeechobee. He also wants money for the state's economic development agency to use as incentives to lure businesses to the state. Legislators have only agreed only to set aside $25 million for tourism ads.

So far legislative leaders don't appear overly concerned that Scott will actually veto the budget. There was speculation he would so the same last year and he didn't.

"I hope the governor doesn't veto the budget because it's a strong budget," said Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican.

The House and Senate had been at odds for weeks over a new spending plan because they initially passed budgets that were $4 billion apart. At first, it appeared that Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran had forged a closed-door agreement, but they acknowledged that a dispute over cuts to hospitals and changes in reimbursements to nursing homes delayed final resolution.

Some additional details did emerge Wednesday, including agreements on environmental programs, spending on beach restoration and a decision to cut $1.3 million from the budget of an Orlando prosecutor who has come under fire for her decision to stop prosecuting death penalty cases.

Some Republicans bristled over criticism from both Scott and Democratic legislators that the budget negotiations have been going on secretly. Florida's Constitution requires that meetings of more than two members of the Legislature - or between the two legislative leaders - to agree upon "formal legislative action" shall be open to the public.

Negron maintained this year's budget negotiations have been "open and transparent" because the Legislature adopted rules that says they can't add spending items at the last minute.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, also contended that Scott has been kept informed and if he wanted to know more he could be at the Capitol. Scott is currently visiting 10 cities over three days where he is asking people to call the Legislature and complain about the budget.

"The governor could be here himself to find out the same thing you are finding out if he was so inclined," Latvala said.

The annual 60-day session was supposed to end on Friday, but legislators have been forced to extend it because they failed to wrap up work on the budget early enough. Florida law requires that the budget be completely finished 72 hours before a final vote can be taken.

Negron and Corcoran said the Legislature will extend its annual session to next Monday. They said that they will only consider the budget and budget-related bills during the three-day extension.

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