State Politics

Lawmakers set aside millions for local projects out of public eye

House and Senate Appropriations Conference Chairs Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes and Sen Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media, Sunday after a meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
House and Senate Appropriations Conference Chairs Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes and Sen Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media, Sunday after a meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

In their budget deal crafted more than a week ago, state lawmakers set aside $500,000 for roads, sidewalks and utilities in Miami’s Design District.

Five days later, with no discussion or explanation, funding for that program jumped to $750,000.

Similarly, the Senate agreed to a House plan Sunday night to spend $250,000 for a residency program at the St. Petersburg-based Florida Orchestra. But when the budget was printed less than 48 hours later, that number had mushroomed into $500,000.

“It’s an ol’ Legislative magic trick,” State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said of the late money.

That magic trick, part of an age-old political tradition in the Capitol, has led to nearly $100 million in last-minute projects being funded after secret negotiations. Despite long days of public debates and assurances of transparency, it shows that critical spending decisions are still being made out of the public eye.

Often there are no visible fingerprints. Sometimes, lawmakers fess up.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he has no qualms about defending $300,000 that emerged late in the budget for the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District. When the House and Senate first passed their budgets in mid-February, neither included a cent for the project to convert 50,000 square feet of warehouse space to art studios in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg.

“You don’t give up,” Rouson said. “Therein lies the challenge for members. You have to work it to the sweet end.”

That’s what Rouson said he did. When House and Senate budget negotiators met at 7 p.m. on February 28— a Sunday — funding for the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District made its debut, tucked into a spreadsheet that included hundreds of other projects that had passed either in the House or Senate budget weeks earlier.

Rouson said he is in no position to judge whether the process is good, bad or ugly; it’s just the rules of the game.

“Just tell me what the rules are and I’ll play by them,” Rouson said.

Dozens of projects in the budget follow similar paths, only emerging in the waning hours of budget negotiations. Among them:

▪  $300,000 for a Central Florida Fair Livestock Pavilion in Orlando.

▪  $11 million for a project on the University of North Florida’s campus.

▪  $750,000 for Florida International University for a program to help start-up business in Miami.

▪  An extra $250,000 for Breakthrough Miami, an enrichment program for middle school students.

▪  An extra $500,000 for the Benderson Rowing Park In Sarasota County, which was already getting $2 million in the budget to prepare for hosting the World Rowing Championships in 2017.

▪  An extra $1.2 million for Manatee Rural Health Services, which was to get $300,000 from the Legislature based on an earlier agreement.

Top budget negotiators acknowledge that about $100 million showed up late this year for things like police radio systems, university funding and community projects.

But it has been worse in the past, said Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House Appropriations chairman from Pasco County. He said this year’s budget has just a third of the $300 million that showed up late in the process last year. He said he and Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican who is the Senate Appropriations chairman, made it a priority to cut down on the late additions in the name of reforming the system.

“The budget process is not as transparent as I would like it to be,” Lee said, adding that his goal was to reduce surprises. “We made a commitment to keep that to an absolute minimum.”

While some late additions could be questionable, Rep. Ed Narain, D-Tampa, said he’s glad there was time to revive funding for relocation of the youth civic center in Tampa Heights. When the House and Senate passed their budgets in early February, there was no funding for the relocation that is being forced because of state road improvements nearby.

But last Monday, as the budget negotiations were bouncing back and forth, $600,000 suddenly emerged. But the closed-door negotiations weren’t over. Just after 9 p.m. Monday, the House and Senate announced the project was going to double to $1.2 million.

“This is something that is good for the community,” Narain said.

Narain said the project was supposed to be in the budget and that its omission was simply an oversight.

Corcoran said the “bill pot” money that is set aside and released at the last minute is designed to catch items like the Tampa Heights project and others that should have been in the budget. He said, for example, lawmakers were supposed to include $11 million in the budget for a project at the University of North Florida. But because of an oversight, it was left out. He said that late money help assure the project would get funding this year.

“That’s what the bill pot is for,” Corcoran said.

The spree of late funding comes at a risk for legislators. Late year, when the Legislature added more than $300 million into the budget late, Gov. Rick Scott included many of them in vetoes totaling $400 million. In many cases, Scott’s office said the projects had not been fully vetted, and lacked explanations as to their statewide benefits or potential return on investment for taxpayers.

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

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