House and Senate budget chiefs reached agreement Thursday night on two areas of the state spending plan for the year beginning July 1, striking deals on funding for environmental programs and health care.
In their first public meeting since taking over negotiations on the budget earlier this week, House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee began the work of hammering out the remaining differences on a plan expected to weigh in around $80 billion. Legislative leaders have to agree on a budget by Tuesday to finish the annual legislative session on time.
"If you're someone who cares about agriculture and natural resources in Florida, it's a great budget," said Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes. "If you're someone who cares about health care in quality and funding, I think it did very well."
Along with agreements already made at lower levels of the negotiations, the deal clears the way for spending $100 million on Everglades restoration and another $51 million on what lawmakers are calling the Northern Everglades.
The two sides have also set aside around $90 million to buy or conserve land, though $27.7 million of that funding is also part of the Everglades restoration budget.
Corcoran and Lee, R-Brandon, also took a hot-button issue out of the spending plan. The House agreed to drop language that would have barred any money flowing through the state budget from going to Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides women's health-care services including abortion.
House Democrats had blasted the provision during debate over their chamber's version of the budget and suggested it was one of the reasons that several of them voted against the proposal.
"The reality is that we don't fund Planned Parenthood for any abortion activities with any dollars," Corcoran told reporters. "There's only ($250,000) that flows through from the federal government."
Lee and Corcoran also issued a new version of the model for $607 million in hospital funding through a program known as the Low Income Pool. The two said it was aimed more at clarifying to health-care facilities what they could expect from the new plan than making any substantial changes.
The most difficult work might still lie ahead for Corcoran and Lee. More-extensive negotiations will be needed to agree on an education budget; lawmakers who handled an early phase of the talks over spending on public schools and state universities resolved little. Corcoran said he and Lee would probably handle education spending last.
At any rate, Lee said budget talks would likely pick up steam now after being on pause, at least in public, since Monday. Over the last few days, Lee's Senate committee has met twice to push through last-minute legislation, and lawmakers have also been working to hammer out a tax-cut package.
"We've been pretty preoccupied in the Senate. ... I think things will accelerate now that most of my workload outside of these negotiations is getting behind us," Lee said.
Meetings on the budget are expected to continue through the weekend. The session is scheduled to end March 11, but a legally required 72-hour review period means the budget will have to be done by Tuesday.