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Budget talks underway, informally and privately

Senate and House budget-writers began informal and private talks over the weekend with a mutual goal of resolving all differences in time to end the regular session on time March 9. The clock is starting to be a factor, as it is every session.

"We're working back and forth with the House. We're having a good discussion, making good progress on lots of issues," Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander told senators. Without being specific, he cited a couple of major areas of disagreement "that we haven't quite resolved, but I think they're resolvable."

"Our conversations have been very fluid and ongoing," House Appropriations Chairman Denise Grimsley told reporters. "There has not been any particular hangup ... We're very close on most things."

Two areas of disagreement involve road-building and higher education. The Senate wants to shift $417 million in car and truck tag fees to the transportation trust fund to expand the road building program. That's not in the House budget. Neither is the Senate's one-time use of $400 million from universities' cash reserves for a variety of programs. Nor has the House signed off on the creation of Florida Polytechnic as an independent 12th state university.

Neither side has yet appointed conferees yet -- a necessary step before public negotiations can be held -- and lawmakers have about a week to agree on everything. The state Constitution requires a three-day "cooling-off" period between the time the final budget is agreed upon and the time lawmakers take a final vote, so the budget would have to be done no later than next Tuesday, March 6, for the session to end on time.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos said the weekend talks were general and informal and emphasized he has not held private meetings on the budget with House Speaker Dean Cannon. "The speaker and I are not meeting. We're going to respect the Constitution," Haridopolos said. -- Steve Bousquet