TALLAHASSEE (AP) - The Florida Senate will no longer try to end a 5 percent discount on road and bridge tolls for motorists using the electronic SunPass system, the chamber's leader announced Friday, less than 24 hours after the repeal passed there.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos also said he also expects his chamber to back down from some of its more draconian cuts in health care spending after budget talks with the House begin next week.
At the urging of Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, the Senate on Thursday rejected a motion to remove the SunPass discount repeal from a bill consolidating three tolling authorities into one. The budget conforming bill (SB 2152) then passed 28-11.
Haridopolos denied he was acting unilaterally by deciding that the Senate would drop the discount repeal, which is not in the House budget.
"In looking at the situation and talking with members over the last 12 hours or so, and speaking with Sen. Alexander, I have let it be known we will not be adjusting those" discounts, the Merritt Island lawmaker said at a news conference. "The discounts will stay in place."
Critics say the repeal would have amounted to a tax or fee increase.
"Of course people are going to talk about that," said Haridopolos, who's also running for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination. "What I saw it as is that the Senate is pretty evenly divided on it, and we've got a lot of other issues a heck of a lot more important."
Haridopolos said he thought a voice vote was evenly split on a motion by Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, to remove the repeal, but he ruled it failed. That's because it needed a two-thirds majority as Norman didn't offer his motion until the bill was on third and final reading.
In arguing against Norman's motion, Alexander said the discount is no longer needed to encourage SunPass sales and doing away with it would save the state $100 million a year, which could be bonded to finance $1 billion in highway improvements.
Haridopolos, though, said Alexander now agrees the Senate should drop the repeal.
"It encourages people to purchase the pass, to use the pass and that helps with traffic flow across the state," Haridopolos said.
The Senate's $71.8 billion appropriations bill (SB 2000), just as lean as the $66.5 billion House version, would cut nearly $4 billion in state spending.
The Senate, but not the House, would stop paying for drugs and hospital care for transplant recipients and other patients who don't qualify for Medicaid but are considered "medically needy" because of the seriousness of their illnesses. The Senate also has a deeper cut for the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.
Haridopolos noted his wife, a physician, met with people who came to the Capitol earlier this week to protest cuts in spending for the disabled.
"These are not easy calls," Haridopolos said. "Just given the gap between the House and Senate in this particular area of the budget, you'll see some of these programs gain a little bit more funding."
Republican Gov. Rick Scott has been making the rounds of conservative talk radio programs saying he expects lawmakers to include some of the $1.7 billion in tax cuts for businesses and property owners that he had recommended.
Haridopolos said there's a chance the GOP-controlled Legislature will add more tax cuts but probably not the ones that Scott is seeking.
The Senate budget includes only a relatively small reduction in water management district taxes while the House has passed a three-day back-to-school sales tax "holiday."
He said senators are looking mostly at the sales tax "holiday" and tax breaks for research and development as well as the water management cuts.
Haridopolos also was cool to a House-passed bill (HB 5005) that would deregulate 14 businesses, occupations and professions including interior design, auto repair, auctioneering, charities, moving and telemarketing.
No similar bill has been filed in the Senate, but the chamber will give it consideration, Haridopolos said. He added, though, that senators won't do anything to help scammers take advantage of consumers.
"There is a role for government," Haridopolos said. "We're not libertarians, we're Republicans."