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Behind the curtain: A cheat-sheet for budget-talk impasse

The annual squabble between the House and Senate over the Florida budget is well underway amid secret talks, personality conflicts and policies affecting everything from school kids to criminals.

 On Monday, Senate budget chief JD Alexander expressed exasperation over the negotiating tactics of House Speaker Dean Cannon, whose chamber refused to respond to a budget offer that Alexander made Thursday evening.

"I personally walked it over. And we've heard nothing," Alexander said. "He refuses to deal with me."

Alexander said it’s all resolvable. But Cannon or House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley need to at least call him back. Here’s what he offered:

*Fewer cuts to Health and Human Services. But though the Senate increased it’s bottom-line by $278 million, it’s still $202 million lower than the House amount.

*More cuts to PreK-12 education spending. The Senate reduced its cuts by $160 million. But it’s $152 million more than the House spends.

*More cuts to higher education. The Senate reduced spending by $128 million, but it still spends $131 million more than the House.

*Impasse over courts. The Senate has refused to rejigger court spending. Alexander said the Senate would increase spending for some state attorneys, but not to the detriment of others. Also, he said, the House plan could eliminate up to 900 jobs from public defender and state attorneys’ offices.

*Road spending and affordable housing. The Senate agreed to an initial house request to sweep money from affordable housing and road programs. The Senate proposes taking $191 million from an affordable housing trust fund and $150 million from the state transportation trust fund.

*Pensions and health care. The chambers are $522 million apart. The Senate wants to save about $1 billion by increasing public-employee contributions for pensions and changing their health-insurance plans. The House savings is far lower: $478 million.

Most of the offers and counteroffers that have flown back and forth between the chambers have dealt with the bottom-line amounts of the different sections of the budget.

Once those allocations are agreed upon, the House and Senate can then appoint conference committees that will agree on the fine print and policies of next year's budget.

The allocation talks are typically secret and involve a handful of top level staffers, the two presiding officers of the chambers and their two appropriations chairs.

The discussions are often infused with some hard-ball negotations. Despite the fact that both chambers are controlled by Republicans, the talks can resemble tribal contests between the House and Senate. Bragging rights are on the line.

Adding to the drama: the sometimes-tense relationship between Cannon and Alexander who clashed during 2009 budget talks. "It didn't work out so well for him the last two years when he was doing it in the shadows of the House," Alexander said.

But now that Cannon is house speaker, he has more authority. Also, Cannon’s counterpart, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, is running for US Senate. That puts more pressure on the Senate to come to terms with the House side, otherwise the session can go into an embarrassing overtime -- which can cost Haridopolos politically, as he wants to hit the campaign trail and not be stuck in Tallahassee.

Alexander refused to say anything bad about Cannon, and Cannon has spoken well of Alexander in recent months. Cannon couldn’t be reached nor could his appropriations chairwoman, Grimsley.

“Chair Grimsley seems to have less authority to resolve these issues,” Alexander said. “That makes it tough to come to terms.”