State Politics

As budget deal emerges, Florida Legislature’s midnight raid on treasury redefines ‘transparency’

TALLAHASSEE -- The paper flew. One handout, then three, then six, then nine, 12 and finally 15.

Page after page of vendor-driven language dealing with replacing portable statewide police radios, creating a pilot online education program and a $1 million handout to the beef and beef products industry. Now that’s pork!

Just before midnight at Florida’s Capitol, legislators reappeared in public to put the finishing touches on an $80 billion-or-so budget that now awaits the formality of an up-or-down vote by lawmakers and a review by Gov. Rick Scott.

The day had begun with Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, saying “so far, so good,” but warning that money was extremely tight because of the need to spend $400 million in tax revenue to shore up the loss of federal money in the low income pool for hospitals.

“We’re in a new world order now,” Gardiner said. “When you take over $400 million out of the budget and put it into health care, there’s going to be impact.”

Some projects suddenly sprouted more zeroes, such as the $2 million for the “IMG Campus Expansion” for a privately-owned youth sports training center in Bradenton that began as a $50,000 line item on Saturday. A $500,000 grant to the Urban League that had been quietly mumbled into the budget over the weekend swelled to $2 million. But there would be no public explanation of why taxpayers’ money was being divvied up like this.

Projects that were rejected two days earlier in budget areas that had been closed out suddenly sprang back to life, like a $1 million appropriation for expansion of the Charlotte County Justice Center. Millions of dollars for school uniforms, a priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island that had been discussed in the regular session in March.

A flood of water projects arrived from the Senate, running for three full pages and totaling nearly $50 million. In what appeared like an attempt to buy veto insurance with Scott, Enterprise Florida magically got another $8.5 million to market Florida and $11 million more in incentive money.

No backup paperwork. No explanation in public. The clock had run out on the Legislature.

Monday night’s orgy of spending on what lawmakers call “supplemental funding issues” almost seemed to dare Gov. Rick Scott to sharpen his veto ax. Stunned lobbyists sat on the floor of a Knott Building committee room trying to make sense of it all, like kids trying to solve a Rubik’s Cube puzzle.

Late-night backroom dealing on member projects is nothing new in Tallahassee. For lobbyists, lawmakers, staff members and the media, this wasn’t their first rodeo. Speaking of which, tucked into the budget is $100,000 for the Town of Davie Bergeron Rodeo Arena Enhancement, a project that bears the name of a Scott supporter, rancher Ron Bergeron.

Surrounded by reporters, the two budget chairmen, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, defended the end result. “At the end of the day, this is a negotiation. It’s a bicameral process,” Lee told reporters.

“If you talk to members, I think they would tell you that we were very open, very transparent, more than in any years previous,” Corcoran said. “This is the way government should work.”

Lawmakers did not exactly know how much the final agreement would add up to, but it is likely to be well more than $76 billion but south of $80 billion.

The Legislature is likely to vote on the package Friday, after a mandatory 72-hour “cooling off” period starting when the document is printed. The vote will come 11 days before Florida must have a spending plan in place to avoid a government shutdown.

The special session started June 1 and could run through Saturday if needed. The state’s new fiscal year starts July 1. After lawmakers approve the budget, the governor can use his line-item veto power to eliminate spending items.

The News Service of Florida contributed to this story.