State Politics

Lawmakers differ on conference system

MANATEE — Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, one of nine “members at-large” on a conference committee charged with resolving differences in legislation passed by the House and Senate, cited the case of indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom as an example of a defective system.

“If you want to see the seedy underside of how it works, read the indictment of Rep. Sansom,” said Fitzgerald. “I’m not taking a shot at Sansom at all, but when you read the indictment, it explains how the process works. Its point is the process itself is so secretive, it tempts good people into doing things they might otherwise not do.”

His view was disputed by Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who argued that there is nothing wrong with the system and that the legislative process ensures the public can clearly see what is going on.

“The process is subject to a lot of scrutiny,” Galvano said. “For something to be truly underhanded, it would take extraordinary effort.”

Fitzgerald, a New College professor whose scholarly specialty is the study of public policy, said the process of reconciling millions of dollars worth of items in the state budget is problematic.

“Being on a conference committee is a powerful thing,” he said.

“It’s also the case the appropriations chairs, speakers (of the House) and president of the Senate have a lot of quiet, hidden power in the process, which is why difficulties arose in the Sansom case,” he added.

Conference committees are poised to begin work on this year’s budget in Tallahassee this week.

Friday, a Leon County grand jury indicted Sansom on a felony charge that he falsified the state budget to get $6 million for an aircraft hangar sought by a developer friend and major Republican donor. Sansom said he would be vindicated at trial.

“Your grand jurors have determined that the funding for this hangar can be attributed directly and solely to Speaker Designate Ray Sansom,” the indictment states. “No member of the legislature ever saw this appropriation until it was inserted into the appropriation bill during conference between the appropriation chair Ray Sansom and his senate counterpart Senator Lisa Carlton,” according to the indictment.

“The appropriation process that gives unbridled discretion to the president of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives and appropriation chairman needs to be changed,” it states. “This state should be guided in openness and transparency.”

Galvano, a member of the same conference committee as Fitzgerald, disagreed with his colleague’s view and preferred to await the court’s verdict before forming any conclusion.

“Our budget is huge, you’re talking about $65 billion, and that in and of itself makes it hard to follow everything, but the budget goes through committees, is reviewed by staff, a whole army of lobbyists are out there looking at line items, the entire floor will vote on the budget, then it goes to the conference committee and is voted on,” Galvano said.

Asked how an appropriation for the $6 million hangar occurred in 2007, Galvano replied, “That’s part of where the grand jury’s decision-making (comes in),” he said. “Ultimately, they based their charges on the hangar, but Rep. Sansom, his status has not changed, he is still innocent until they can show beyond a reasonable doubt there was some bad conduct that got the hangar through. We have to assume the process was followed.”

Last year, Florida TaxWatch identified 130 projects worth $109 million that it said had circumvented normal legislative review, said Robert Weissert, director of communications and external relations and special counsel to the president for the non-partisan, independent research institute based in Tallahassee.

“The appropriations process is designed to weigh options,” said Weissert. “We need to focus our money where it will do the most good. Things that circumvent the process, we can’t insure they will give a high return on investment for the taxpayer money.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com

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