House and Senate leaders continued negotiating the state budget behind closed doors Wednesday, more than 24 hours after saying they had an early agreement on the overall size of the spending plan.
Generally, a deal on the broad contours of the budget --- known as "allocations" --- would lead in short order to meetings by joint House-Senate committees to hammer out details of state spending for the year that begins July 1.
But for a second day, optimism from legislative leaders that those conference meetings could begin produced no actual public negotiating sessions.
"I think that we've reached an agreement on the substance of the budget, and I think we also have reached agreement on a way that we can get to conference," Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Wednesday morning.
But lawmakers pushed back against the idea that a deal that many believed had been sealed Tuesday had fallen apart.
"When we closed business yesterday, the major issues had been agreed on, at this point there is some tweaking going on what I call second- and third-tier issues," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican set to take Negron's place late next year.
The annual legislative session is scheduled to end May 5. But lawmakers face a Tuesday deadline to complete a full budget agreement or go into overtime, either through a special session or an extension of the regular session. That is because of a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off" period before lawmakers can vote on the budget.
Negron confirmed some of the broad strokes of the agreement Wednesday morning. The Senate would get wins on higher-education funding and policy, as well as Negron's plan to build a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
In return, House leaders would largely get their way on public education. Local education property tax bills would not rise with property values; as a result, the increase in money for schools distributed through the state's main funding formula would rise by a relatively modest amount per student.
However, the House would also get $200 million for teacher bonuses tied to teachers' performances on certain tests, and $200 million for its proposed "schools of hope" program, meant to encourage qualified charter schools to set up near academically troubled traditional schools.
Those would be outside the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP, a formula usually used to calculate per-student increases in school spending.
"It would be a mistake to only count in the education budget what comes directly through the FEFP," Negron said. "I think there are other educational opportunities that we'll give to our constituents, and I think that improves the overall quality of our system."
The Florida Education Association, the state's main teachers union, lambasted the "schools of hope" legislation and similar ideas that have circulated in the Senate.
"Legislation like this makes it clear that the real goal of some of our political leaders is not to provide a high quality education to our children, it's to dismantle public schools and profit off our students," FEA President Joanne McCall said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Negron's comments to reporters Wednesday also raised the prospect that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, were delving deeper into the budget than leaders have done while discussing allocations in recent years.
For example, Negron said leaders were talking about "issues related to whether language is included in a bill, whether it's included in a conforming bill." But legislators have recently touted swapping language on conforming bills --- which brings state law into line with the budget --- and fine-print known as proviso during the public conference process.
Gov. Rick Scott was in Argentina on a trade mission most of the day, but his office continued pressing for more funding for Visit Florida --- the state's tourism marketer, which is expected to get far less in the budget deal than the $100 million Scott requested.
"Lawmakers cannot be shortsighted at the expense of Florida families by cutting funds for tourism marketing and economic development," Scott said. "I would be absolutely shocked if politicians in the Florida Legislature put their self-interests before the interests of our families and small businesses."
Scott's office also issued a memo Wednesday warning that cutting back on funding for Visit Florida could hurt the state's economy.
The governor is scheduled to meet with 10 senators Thursday after his return to Tallahassee.
News Service of Florida