TALLAHASSEE — Legendary Senate Rules Chairman Dempsey Barron is credited with the immemorial admonition when following the Florida Legislature to "assume nothing."
With that in mind, Senate and House budget chairmen insist that despite dire predictions, they are making progress toward an agreement that would allow the Legislature to pass a budget and adjourn on time by May 5.
Of course, the situation is fluid. On Monday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, half-jokingly told the Capital Tiger Bay Club that there were "only 14 more weeks to go" in the session, saying he could only promise a new budget by July 1, the start of the state fiscal year.
On Thursday, Latvala had a different forecast. "I think we need to start in (budget) conference by the first of the week in order to get done on time. But I have every confidence that we will do that at this point, which is different from my opinion at the first part of this week," he said. "We've made a lot of progress."
House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, also expressed optimism.
"We're making progress," Trujillo said. "We're still a little bit apart, but we're making progress."
The comments are hard to reconcile with budget plans that are approximately $4 billion apart, with the Senate wanting to spend more money on issues like state universities, state-worker pay raises and health care. The House wants to be more frugal, although its budget includes major K-12 initiatives like the "Schools of Hope" legislation to fund more charter schools.
"Higher ed, we're completely different. K-12, we're worlds apart," Trujillo said. "Our philosophy and our focus has always been how do we cut government and how do we save money so the out years are shored up."
Trujillo said the House will not compromise on its position to oppose an increase in local school property taxes based on the rise in property values.
Gov. Rick Scott, who holds the power to reject individual spending items or even veto the entire budget, has complicated the final negotiations by calling for $200 million to repair the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee.
He has even upped the ante for funding Visit Florida to $100 million, although the House wants to slash funding for the tourism-promotion agency. The House has also rejected Scott's call for $85 million for the economic-development agency Enterprise Florida.
But the potential for a smooth ending to the 2017 session was increased by Scott winning approval from the Trump administration for $1.5 billion in Low Income Pool, or LIP, funding to help Florida hospitals provide care to poor and uninsured patients.
Although the funding includes a sizable match of local money, Trujillo said it could allow lawmakers to shift as much as $500 million from health care spending to other areas in the budget.
"It helps us reach a resolution because I think it will free up money from general revenue that then could be used to put into reserves to shore up out-years or to pay for some of the projects that the members have a unique interest in," he said.
Another potential revenue boost could come from a gambling agreement, although reaching such a deal remains a difficult task. If it can be done, it would yield potentially $300 million or more for the coming year.
Latvala declined to get into any details on the give-and-take in the preliminary budget negotiations that determine how much money is "allocated" to each major part of the budget.
"I find it's better just to have those conversations and then announce a result," he said. "But I am very happy with the way those conversations are going."
Trujillo agreed with Latvala that ideally budget negotiations should start early next week. But if not, it will inevitably lead to renewed talk about an overtime or special session.
New tourism, dike requests 'tricky'
House leaders aren't embracing Scott's requests this week to boost funding for Visit Florida or to float $200 million to speed federal repairs to the dike around Lake Okeechobee.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran called both proposals "tricky."
"The dike is $200 million. Again, I hate to always say this, but show us the money," Corcoran told reporters on Thursday.
Scott made his late-session push for the dike funding on Monday. It is tied to a Senate proposal (SB 10) aimed at creating a reservoir south of the lake. Scott also announced Wednesday he talked with President Donald Trump to get the federal government to cover the remaining portion of the $1.7 billion dike repair project that could be completed by 2025.
As for Visit Florida, Corcoran noted Scott has been traveling the state taking personal shots at him and other House members who have sought to eliminate Enterprise Florida and cut funding for Visit Florida from $78 million to $25 million.
"I want to say, I love the governor, but I've taken some slings and arrows over the last couple of months," Corcoran said. "I've been told I hate beaches, I hate visitors, I hate hotels, I hate tourists, because I'm not adequately funding Visit Florida."
Corcoran said the governor needs to defend a number of Visit Florida deals — including a $1 million contract with rapper Pitbull and an $11.6 million sponsorship of a cooking show hosted by celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse — to help set a more realistic funding level.
"Then I think you get to a number that at least we can recognize and everyone says it was a worthy expenditure of taxpayers' money," Corcoran said.
Scott initially requested $76 million for Visit Florida and on Tuesday said he wanted $100 million to market Florida to visitors.