Flurry of deals struck behind closed doors affect millions in spending.

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 2, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Legislative leaders promised to make transparency in spending a priority, but when it came time to finish their $74.5 billion budget, it was hard to break old habits.

A flurry of deals struck behind closed doors at late-night meetings involved spending millions of dollars. Public meetings announcing the decisions explain little or nothing about why they were made.

Exhibit A of this legislative sleight-of-hand is a tool called "conforming" bills, which are special documents that bypass the committee process and are rarely amended.

Lawmakers wrapped their budget in a last-minute 10:30 p.m. meeting Tuesday that adopted 16 bills stuffed with policy changes and deals publicly seen for the first time. They approved a broad range of policies and spending, including:

• A new tax break intended to lure a California company by exempting from sales tax any natural gas used for generators that run on a "non-combustion fuel cell." The measure is intended to help Bloom Energy, a Sunnyvale, Calif. clean-technology start-up.

• Protections for state law enforcement to allow them to continue banking vacation days.

• Creating a new office in the Department of Education for K-12 student advancement.

• Establishing a new method to bill counties for Medicaid.

• Exempting from a state transparency website all documents signed by the offices of attorney general and agriculture commissioner.

Legislators defended the last-minute effort to include major policy changes in the budget language.

"I know 10:30 is late, but at least it was an open meeting," said state Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a former House speaker who now serves as the Senate Rules Committee chairman. "To be honest with you, when I was speaker, we'd schedule meetings that would never happen. That was part of the gymnastics of the process."

Others had hoped House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would be true to their promise to increase budget transparency.

Kathleen Oropeza, a parent activist from Orlando, fears legislators inserted language into the budget to create a searchable website to hold data on schools, teachers and students to help for-profit education companies.

"When things are not successful in the open committee process, they are pushed through in a conforming bill in the dark of night," she said. "Parents are more concerned about the privacy of their children than just about anything else. This is not something that should be discussed in the dark like this."

Although some changes agreed to behind the scenes appear to be technical, others such as the new Medicaid payment method, have major financial repercussions.

Hospitals now can review bills to determine how many patients they treat live locally. Those who live in other counties covered by Medicaid are flagged so counties can get reimbursed. It's a major relief for larger counties that attract visitors such as Miami-Dade, Orange and Hillsborough.

The new method lawmakers approved Tuesday night would discontinue that practice so amounts of what counties pay to Florida are based strictly on a formula.

"I thought that issue might come up, but I wasn't sure," said Miami-Dade lobbyist Jess McCarty, who rushed to the meeting at 10:30 p.m. to argue against it.

"We estimate this will have a $10 million impact on Miami-Dade taxpayers," McCarty told appropriations chairmen Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and state Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland. "I just wanted to go on the record."

Would this spark a discussion, or at least an explanation for the change?.

Nope.

"OK, thank you very much," Negron responded.

Asked for more information about the sales tax exemption for natural gas used in fuel cells, McKeel couldn't provide even the most basic information, like how much it would cost the state.

"It's minuscule," McKeel said. "It's relatively minor."

Conforming language is notorious for linking major policy change to essential budget line items. Once attached to the budget, a controversial policy that doesn't have the full support of the Legislature can ride through to approval. The use of them had grown so rapidly in recent years that Weatherford vowed to apply the brakes, stopping the practice of folding policy decisions into the conforming bills.

"We have to govern ourselves better," Weatherford said last year.

Herald/Times staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.

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