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Nine little words that just might cause a legislative train wreck

The 2017 legislative session begins in Tallahassee in about two-and-a-half weeks and the Senate and House are still hashing out details of a critical joint rule so that writing a budget can get underway.

FullSizeRender(11)Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, tells the Times/Herald that he and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are making progress, but stumbling blocks remain, including a standoff over nine words found in House Rule 5.14: "An appropriations project bill may only request nonrecurring funds." That's a cornerstone of Corcoran's plan to transform and add transparency to how individual lawmakers' spending priorities work their way into the budget every year.

But it's a non-starter in the Senate.

Recurring money is generally used for fixed annual costs, such as paying state workers' salaries. Nonrecurring or one-time money, from a lawsuit settlement or an unexpected uptick in lottery ticket sales, is like a one-time salary bonus, and generally pays for one-time expenditures like water projects.

Corcoran insists on using nonrecurring money for appropriations projects so that they have to be justified every session by every Legislature. Negron disagrees. "Projects that are put forward by members of the Legislature should not be given short shrift and disadvantaged," he said. "It seems self-defeating."

Senators interpret the House rule to mean that any program that seeks a dollar more than it received last year is subject to the House's three criteria: It must be filed as a stand-alone bill, must be reported favorably by at least one House committee, and must be funded with one-time nonrecurring money. Negron says that would impose hardships and confusion for programs that have to pay workers' salaries and have permanent overhead expenses.

Negron agreed that a program he supports could be impacted by the nonrecurring money provision: PACE Centers for Girls, a statewide program that helps at-risk youth. "That's a good example. There are lots of examples. There are programs that we have that serve patients with Alzheimer's disease ... I don't think there's anything wrong with having recurring funding." PACE Centers received about $19 million in the current year's budget. PACE Centers for Girls has three lobbyists, Frank Mayernick Jr., Tracy Hogan Mayernick and Jodi Lea Stevens.

Nearly two weeks ago, a threatened Senate lawsuit against the House, followed by a dare from Corcoran that he would pay the Senate's filing fee, slowed communication. Negron says he shared Corcoran's goal of making the budget more transparent, but that the autonomy of each chamber must be respected. Negron was asked to name a date by which an on-time adjournment would be impossible if the two sides can't agree. His reply: "I'm actually encouraged that we're doing it now as opposed to addressing it in week five or six."

As of Thursday, the legislative tracking site reports, House members had filed 759 separate project bills with a total cost of nearly $1.5 billion. Many won't make the cut, and if the two chambers can't agree on how they will be paid for, none of them may survive. Corcoran has said he and Negron have made headway on an agreement on a detailed questionnaire that every project sponsor must complete, and the House has agreed to relax the timetable for when projects must be filed until the fifth week of the session, which this year is the week of April 3.