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Florida budget talks about as clear as gumbo

One of those watching state lawmakers discuss budget negotiations this weekend was Gov. Rick Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers.

A newcomer to Florida, Sellers was the spokeswoman for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal before joining Scott’s office last year. With this being her first legislative session in Tallahassee, Sellers said Saturday she was impressed after watching the Conference Committee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development Appropriations explain how they were divvying up $11.2 billion.

“In Louisiana, these meetings are held in smoky back rooms,” Sellers said. “The public never gets to see this.”

But for lobbyists, reporters, members of the general public, and even most lawmakers, there is more than just a hint of Cajun flavor in how lawmakers decide the budget.

Yes, the meetings are held in public. But the meetings are after the fact. The chairs merely announce the spending decisions that were made behind closed doors among the chamber leaders. If you weren’t in the room when that decision was made, good luck understanding the rationale for the spending, or, more importantly, what was swapped for it or who asked for it.

One way to kinda follow along is to track the “side-by-sides”, which are spreadsheets comparing the proposed spending between the House and the Senate. Among lobbyists or agency heads whose livelihoods depend on various line items, side-by-sides are one of the hottest commodities before and a few minutes after a meeting, for they detail the latest round of budget negotiations, who’s in, and who’s out. By the next meeting, however, their value has plummeted as legislative staff hand out new numbers in the next round of side-by-sides.

With Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford promoting greater transparency, reporters get first dibs on the spreadsheets. Made available just minutes before each meeting, they don’t explain everything.

Take the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. It wasn’t included in either the House or Senate budgets that were passed on the floor. But during conference late Friday, $500,000 suddenly appeared for it in the Senate budget. By that time, the two chambers had agreed upon $500,000 for its rival, Ruth Eckerd Hall, and $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Museum and $500,000 for the Florida Holocaust Museum. Was Straz playing catch-up in a budget with the first surplus in six years?

It wasn’t until Sunday that the House matched the Senate offer on the Straz Center. Asked where the offer came from specifically, and Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, the vice chair of the committee, said it came from the Senate.

“I don’t know where it originated,” Hooper said. “(The Straz) was 7th on the ranking list, so it was certainly a valid request. I don’t know if anyone on my side made that request. Someone from the senate did, so we looked back at the list and saw the criteria,  they were certainly within the top 10 and we determined that was reasonable.”

There was other jockeying. When the Senate matched the House offer for $50,000 in Rogers Park in Hernando, the House’s next offer was $250,000 for the park, which through Sunday the Senate had yet to match -- at least publicly. On Friday, both chambers had agreed to spend $50,000 for the Urban League of Broward, but then the Senate upped its offer to $1.2 million. The House’s next offer: $0.

Yet by Sunday, the House had included the $1.2 million for the Urban League, and the two chambers were in agreement again. How? Why? Who? No one explained at the “public” meeting Sunday.

Some pretty sizable projects were decided this way. The next president of the Senate, Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, chairs the transportation appropriations committee. An avid biker who has competed in Ironman Triathlons, Gardiner was instrumental in getting the House to agree to $50 million (over five years) for a Central Florida bike trail that will connect with others in Florida, such as the Pinellas Trail.

“I know the tourism opportunity for people to fly in, and you tell them, look you can ride a bike across the state of Florida,” Gardiner said. “That’s pretty cool.”

Gardiner and Hooper haggled over the weekend over how much to more to finance Visit Florida. Gov. Rick Scott had asked for an additional $75 million for the state’s tourism arm, but by Sunday, the House offered $20 million, the Senate just $15 million.

“(Visit Florida) is doing a job that’s hard to argue with,” said Hooper. “We had a record year in tourism. I think we’re on track to have another record year. Until we get enough manufacturing and other industry, tourism is still our smokestack.”

Both the House and Senate agreed to spend $480 million on teacher pay (that was the Senate’s initial offering, the House had proposed $676 million million). But other issues remain unresolved.

The House wants to spend $4 million on a Department of Agriculture ad campaign. The Senate wants to spend nothing. The Senate wants to spend $70 million on Everglades restoration, the House wants $44 million (which is up from its first offer of $32 million). The Senate wants to spend $35 million on beach projects, the House $20 million. The House wants to spend $75 million on land acquisition for environmentally sensitive lands, the Senate wants to spend $60 million. The Senate wants to require the Public Service Commission to review the cost effectiveness and need for any nuclear power plant (ahem Progress Energy) if the most recent cost estimate exceeds the original by 50 percent, which the House doesn't address.


The House lowered its tuition increase at state universities from 6 percent to 4 percent, but the Senate still wants no tuition increase at all.


“Now is not the time to be taking money out of the pockets of our students,” said Senate Education appropriations chair Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

Lawmakers have until 5 p.m. Tuesday to resolve these issues before they get “bumped” to the next level, appropriation chairs Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.