State Politics

Late $1B legislative binge behind closed doors demonstrates who has clout

TALLAHASSEE -- When the sun shone on the legislative budget agreement completed an hour before midnight Monday, the examples of who-you-know politics came to light — millions of dollars in pet projects for legislative leaders and well-connected lobbyists.

But often faring worse were those projects that didn’t have a high-profile voice — those with waiting lists of services for the adult disabled, the elderly and even public safety.

Lauren’s Kids, the program to aid victims of sexual abuse founded by the daughter of super lobbyist Ron Book of Miami, was funded for another year for $3.8 million. But the budget for high-risk probation officers who supervise sex offenders when they return to the community saw little change. Hundreds of officers will continue to have caseloads of violent offenders that exceed the 40-person maximum allowed by state law.

An online education program for prison inmates pushed by a well-connected lobbyist and former Republican Party staff member was funded for $1.5 million. But a public television program that allowed hundreds of teachers to access free instructional videos for their students to prepare for state tests was zeroed out.

Lawmakers included $12 million for a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to help families of children with disabilities pay for educational services, but they also cut millions in funding for services for 20,000 disabled adults.

On Friday, Florida legislators are poised to pass the $79 billion state budget by the June 30 deadline and end the bitter impasse that threw them into special session — at a cost to taxpayers of an extra $1.5 million this year. It’s a must-pass document and no changes will be allowed.

As the House spent the day debating the budget Thursday, the only mystery remaining to the highly scripted process was how many lawmakers would vote against it. Some Democrats complained about the back-door dealmaking.

“The amount of money changing hands behind closed doors at the last minute is over $1 billion,” complained state Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Hollywood. “I have a problem seeing this as a transparent process.”

“There’s plenty of opportunities for reform,’’ conceded Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who helped to usher in an unprecedented $301 million in unforeseen budget projects sought by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Gardiner late Monday.

For example, farmers who help the state control water flows around the Everglades received $28 million in special payments — a project pursued by Crisafulli, who is rumored to want to run for state agriculture commissioner. His home county of Brevard also received $121,629 for a telehealth initiative.

The late-night budget also poured $10 million more into Early Steps, another Gardiner priority that serves children with developmental disabilities, and a proposal to fund a downtown Orlando project for the University of Central Florida, a priority of Gardiner’s hometown, received $15 million.

By contrast, the final budget cut $2.3 million in funding for 2,777 Alzheimer’s patients awaiting care, reduced community care for the elderly from $5 million to $2 million, leaving 34,000 Floridians waiting for services, and reduced money for long-term care for the elderly.

Lee defended Gardiner’s decision to deliver on behalf of “children with unique” abilities, saying “yes, there are advocates internally and externally in this process and there are things that become priorities based upon who is leading,’’ Lee said. But he said he admired Gardiner for using his position to help people “who have lacked an advocate at this high level.”

Crisafulli and Gardiner defended the budget cuts, citing the need to plow $400 million in general revenue money to offset the loss of federal funds to hospitals that provide charity care.

“We’re excited about the product that we put together and we’re ready to go home,’’ Gardiner said. “We think it’s something we can be proud of.”

Some of the budget decisions, however, may come with community consequences.

On June 3, a woman walked into a Fort Lauderdale hotel room where she was raped by several men until she passed out. She only escaped after darting into traffic and seeking help. One of the men arrested and charged with sexual assault was Rodney Gilyard, on probation for sexual assault.

The news sent shudders through the probation officer community in Broward County, some of whom supervise as many as 96 violent felons.

“What is more important than the state ensuring that sex offenders and predators are being strictly monitored according to statute? Nothing!’’ said Christina Bullins, a former probation officer in Broward County. “How can they fund all this pork, but not fund probation to be in compliance with their duty to protect citizens? This is reckless.”

State law requires violent offenders be supervised by “experienced correctional probation officers,” with caseloads of no more than 40.

In November, former DOC Secretary Michael Crews filed his annual budget request and noted that “for the past several years,” the department’s Community Corrections program area expenses have been insufficient to carry out its operational functions. To offset, shortfalls, the department requested budget amendments to transfer funds from other program areas.

Crews requested $4.2 million in additional funds to the community correction budget to meet the needs “without adversely affecting other program areas.” Gov. Rick Scott recommended funding only $497,000 of that request and lawmakers added only $1.3 million to the budget.

The number of probation officers has declined dramatically since the law was last revised in 2004 — 639 fewer officers serving about the same number of offenders. That means officers in some counties, including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough, have caseloads of more than 50 felons.

State Rep. Larry Metz, R-Yalaha, chairman of the House criminal justice budget committee, said the Department of Corrections had made “a conscious decision not to hire people,” instead using the money from salaries to make building repairs.

This year, he said, the Legislature made an effort to fund both repairs and salaries.

“It is a work in progress,’’ he said.

Lee acknowledged the media and public “weren’t kept really informed about what was happening behind the scenes” during the late-night budget rollout. But he defended the effort as part of the challenges of reaching compromise in a bicameral legislature that has struggled to reach compromise.

“This is a team sport here and I work within the confines and limitations of my members,” he said.