State Politics

As state budget talks wind down, which local projects are making the cut?

Volunteers Brittney Davis, Kevin Jahoda and their kids Kalil and Khyani help clean up Ludlam Trail on Global Youth Service Day Saturday, April 16, 2016. The Ludlam Trail project may get $2.5 million in the next state budget, but that could change.
Volunteers Brittney Davis, Kevin Jahoda and their kids Kalil and Khyani help clean up Ludlam Trail on Global Youth Service Day Saturday, April 16, 2016. The Ludlam Trail project may get $2.5 million in the next state budget, but that could change. Miami Herald file photo

With the big ticket items in the state budget resolved or in the hands of the top leaders in the House and Senate, the rest of the Florida Legislature hunkered down into marathon negotiations over the weekend to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars for local projects back home.

While many of the items are tiny in a budget of $83 billion, they are the library projects, museums, park renovations and roadway work legislators crave to bring back home to win praise from voters.

“We’re sort of in a project hell,” said Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, referring to negotiations and constant inquiries from other members about the status of funding for things back home.

It took on a bit of a flea market atmosphere Saturday with lawmakers mostly casually dressed in jeans and some even wearing T-shirts as they dickered over the price tag on key local projects.

For instance, the Senate first proposed sending $5 million to help the Ludlam Trail project — a proposed 6.2-mile urban greenway project in Miami. The House countered with $2.5 million. By noon on Saturday, the Senate fell back and went with the $2.5 million. The project received $3 million in the last budget.

Similarly, the Senate first pitched sending $100,000 for help pay for the Parkland library master plan expansion in Broward County, while the House was prepared to give nothing as of Friday night. But by Saturday morning the House agreed to the $100,000.

Underline (2)
This a rendering of The Underline project. It’s in line for $3 million in the state budget for 2017-18, but that could change. Miami Herald file

Yet other issues went unresolved, like $5 million the House wanted for The Underline project that would create a 10-mile urban trail and linear park under Metrorail from the Miami River to the Dadeland South Station. The Senate wouldn’t budget off $2.5 million. Unable to reach a deal, budget negotiators pushed the disagreements to higher ranking legislators to sort out. The Underline project received $2 million in the last budget.

Any unresolved budget issues were sent to Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami. What they don’t finish by noon on Sunday, then gets passed to Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran to iron out.

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said the whirlwind of project bartering can be tiring, but at least this year the Legislature has tried to halt a practice where projects would appear almost miraculously in the final budget with no previous public airing.

This year the House imposed reforms that required all projects to be filed as a bill and be in the budgets before the final rounds of negotiations started.

“It really helps to not have projects coming in at the last minute and changing negotiations,” Brandes said.

The limited time to negotiate on projects has been an issue this year, Brandes said. House and Senate budget writers didn’t start haggling over projects until Friday, days behind when they typically would. With a final budget proposal due to be printed by Tuesday and the Legislature facing a Friday to vote on it, Brandes said a lot of numbers are flying around late into the night and in the early morning hours to meet the deadlines.

There are other bigger challenges too before the Legislature can finish the $83 billion budget.

Lawmakers have agreed broadly to $651 million in cuts to hospitals, but they haven’t yet reached a deal on which parts of Medicaid will be affected by the plan. And on Saturday, negotiations broke down completely over the $3.6 billion environmental portion of the state budget, meaning that section of the budget remains completely unresolved.

Also, as of Saturday afternoon, House and Senate leaders had yet to detail how they’ll spend portions of the state’s more than $23 million education budget.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @JeremySWallace

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