Lawmakers may change, but budget tricks stay the same

05/01/2013 6:30 PM

05/01/2013 6:31 PM

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 were struck behind closed doors and at late night meetings on policy and spending decisions affecting millions of dollars. Public meetings announcing the decisions explain little or nothing about why decisions 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. Tuesday meeting 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 into the budget language.

“I know 10:30 is late, but at least it was an open meeting,’’ said 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.”

But to others, who had hoped that House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would be true to their promise to increase budget transparency, the turn of events has been disappointing.

Kathleen Oropeza, a parent activist from Orlando, fears that 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 of the changes were agreed to behind the scenes appear to be technical, others, like the new Medicaid payment method, have major financial repercussions.

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

The new method lawmakers approved Tuesday night would discontinue that practice so that 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 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.

“Okay, 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 miniscule,” 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 he apply the brakes, stopping the practice of folding policy decisions in the conforming bills.

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

Gaetz ordered his budget committee to take a deep dive into the state budgeting system and asked Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to develop and consider legislation that would create a user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, Web-based transparency tool for state revenues, spending, and contracting that would be available to the public as well as legislators.

“I am committed to improving transparency in public spending and contracting,” Gaetz wrote in a December letter to senators.

But rather than push through with a requirement to create a centralized website for all contracts, the House and Senate passed bills to study the idea. They also eliminate from the budget $2.5 million that had previously been set aside to create the web site.

When the House insisted on exempting from the web site any contracts signed by Cabinet agencies of the attorney general, chief financial officer, and agriculture commissioner, the Senate agreed at the late-Tuesday meeting.

The concept, as agreed to in the late-night meeting, “is different than what I proposed and passed,’’ Ring said.

By the end of the day on Wednesday, the language that lawmakers had agreed in the late-night conference committee to was still not available for the public to review.

When will it be ready?

“Like other bills, when the language is finalized,’’ said Katie Betta, Senate spokeswoman.

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

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