Government

Talks on education budget break down

TALLAHASSEE — Education budget talks broke down late Sunday after a day in which negotiations on the overall state spending plan seemed to slow on several fronts.

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.

In a counteroffer Sunday night, House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, accepted only parts of the Senate deal. That prompted Fresen’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Don Gaetz, to say the education talks would move up to House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.

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

“All other issues in the entire education budget are bumped,” Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.

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.

There are widespread areas of disagreement, including on funding for high-performing state universities and on spending for the “Best and Brightest” public school teacher bonuses, which are based in part on teachers’ college admissions test scores.

Some senators — including Education Pre-K-12 Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity — strongly oppose the continuation of the Best and Brightest program.

There are also dozens of individual lawmakers’ pet projects that Corcoran and Lee will now have to slog through.

The rejection of the Senate offer came just a few hours after Fresen told reporters that while he still needed to study the proposal, it didn’t seem to have much objectionable in it.

“There’s nothing in that offer that we haven’t discussed at a certain point, nothing that seems on its face toxic to either myself or any of my committee members or anybody in the House,” he said.

Negotiations on other parts of the budget also bogged down Sunday after lawmakers had made good progress Saturday. The committee negotiating spending on health care didn’t meet Sunday. Other meetings were pushed back or canceled.

On the panel dealing with economic development issues, lawmakers began sifting through local projects requested by individual legislators. Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican leading the talks for his chamber, said the sides were coming together.

“We closed the gap considerably on the projects,” he said.

Still, some items in those areas were likely to move on to Corcoran and Lee, as well as funding issues related to the state’s tourism and space initiatives, Latvala said.

House and Senate negotiators are working on a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Because of a required 72-hour review period, a budget will have to be finished by March 8 if lawmakers expect to end the annual legislative session on time March 11.