State Politics

516 projects still alive under new Florida House rules for hometown spending

Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to promote awareness of and to prevent sexual abuse against children, is eligible for $1 million from taxpayers. It is 1 of 13 projects sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, that are still alive. The lobbyist on the bill, Ron Book, is the senator’s father. In this photo, Lauren Book, left, is with Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, outside American Airlines Arena, March 22, 2013, at the start of a 1,500-mile walk through Florida in an annual awareness campaign for Lauren’s Kids.
Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to promote awareness of and to prevent sexual abuse against children, is eligible for $1 million from taxpayers. It is 1 of 13 projects sponsored by Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, that are still alive. The lobbyist on the bill, Ron Book, is the senator’s father. In this photo, Lauren Book, left, is with Miami Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, outside American Airlines Arena, March 22, 2013, at the start of a 1,500-mile walk through Florida in an annual awareness campaign for Lauren’s Kids. Miami Herald file photo

When it comes to hometown pork-barrel spending in Florida’s next budget, this should be a good year for Miami-Dade and Pinellas counties for two reasons: Key members of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s inner circle are from Miami, and the Senate’s lead budget-writer is Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

But projects must clear new hurdles this session, and some clear winners and losers are emerging. Corcoran and the House instituted new rules for projects that require that each one must be filed as a standalone bill, must be heard by a House committee and must be paid for with one-time, nonrecurring money.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, is the runaway winner with 23 projects eligible to be in the House budget. Diaz is chairman of the Miami-Dade delegation and of the House Commerce Committee that handles most business-related legislation.

I take a lot of the county’s priorities on my shoulders. I believe in every House project that I file, and I pester people until they hear my bills. You have to work your stuff.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami

“I take a lot of the county’s priorities on my shoulders,” Diaz said. “I believe in every House project that I file, and I pester people until they hear my bills. You have to work your stuff.”

In a revolving-door Legislature hobbled by term limits, Diaz said that personal relationships are paramount, and a well-liked legislator is more likely to have success pushing a project.

Miami-Dade benefits by having Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, as the House budget writer, though he has been outspoken in calling for a smaller budget than in past years.

Rep. Jeanette Nunez, R-Miami, got 13 projects through a committee, and so did Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, who represents 10 small, rural counties in North Florida, according to a LobbyTools analysis. Rep. Liz Porter, R-Lake City, steered 11 projects through a committee.

Among the most successful Democrats were Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, with nine projects, and freshman Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami, with eight.

Every one of those House members in both parties whose projects are moving have something in common. They all voted for a Corcoran priority to abolish Enterprise Florida.

At the same time, Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-Treasure Island, who supports Enterprise Florida, filed 18 projects and four got through committees, including a Pinellas Park pond project, the Florida Holocaust Museum and a program to help people with disabilities get into the hotel and motel industry. But no others moved forward after the March 10 vote, and she said her bills have stalled on the House calendar.

“None of my appropriations projects were scheduled after that vote,” Peters said. “When I made that vote I knew there were repercussions, but it was the right vote.”

Peters still has an ally in Latvala, and the Senate budget released this week includes a number of Peters-backed projects that were never heard in the House.

Corcoran says there’s no direct correlation between the EFI vote and the fate of lawmakers’ projects, and if there is, it’s not easy to see. Some Republicans who crossed him on Enterprise Florida haven’t had much success moving their projects, but others have. Rep. Brad Drake, the pro-Enterprise Florida Republican who filed the most projects, got six heard out of 45.

These local projects would benefit people with Alzheimer’s, hearing loss or developmental disabilities, restore historic buildings, install street lights and drainage systems and build community centers. Corcoran’s new system requires a level of disclosure for each project that was not available in past years.

For example, Lauren’s Kids, a non-profit founded by Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, to promote awareness of and to prevent sexual abuse against children, is eligible for another $1 million from taxpayers. Nunez is the sponsor of the project (HB 3261) and its lobbyist, Ron Book, is the senator’s father.

The nine-page project application says that most of the $1 million would be spent on printing of materials, curriculum fulfillment, storage, travel and videography. Other expenses include $75,000 for consultants, $55,000 for an executive director and $35,000 for a communications director. The application says Lauren’s Kids, which is overseen by the Department of Education, will seek an additional $3 million to $10 million in public money in the next five years.

In a tight budget year, many projects won’t survive the upcoming weeks of legislative maneuvering. Even if they do, they’re still subject to Gov. Rick Scott’s veto pen in a year when House Republicans have targeted Enterprise Florida for extinction.

Of all 1,205 House projects, 516 or 43 percent made the first cut, according to LobbyTools, the legislative tracking service. The rest are dead in the House for this session because House appropriations subcommittees aren’t scheduled to meet again. A project can still emerge in the Senate but it has to exist as a bill or amendment at the start of a joint budget conference committee process.

Of the 516 approved House projects, not one was rejected by a committee, and most were explained and endorsed unanimously in an assembly-line fashion. One project (HB 2291), for a statewide leadership conference for girls at a cost of $500,000, was postponed and did not get a favorable vote after members questioned it.

Of those 516 projects in the running, 384 or 74 percent were filed by Republicans and 132 or 26 percent were sponsored by Democrats. Republicans occupy two-thirds of House seats (79 of 120), so the GOP is outperforming in terms of getting money teed up for the budget.

The House is scheduled to release its first budget proposal Friday, when a new list of project winners and losers will emerge.

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