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Latvala warns against "sneaking" last minute policy changes into budget

An influential South Florida Senator is warning legislative leaders not to try to, as he put it, “sneak” things into the budget. James Call reports, St. Petersburg Senator Jack Latvala is objecting to language proposed for a transportation conforming bill that would spend money on seaports.

Republican Kissimmee Representative Mike Horner looks over a spreadsheet representing the Senate’s latest offer for the transportation economic development budget. Areas of agreement are shaded gray.  About two-thirds of the 371 line items are gray. Here is the sound of a state budget coming together.

“It’s really good. I agree with that Senator. The nice thing is the spreadsheet is starting to turn really gray. We’ve really stabilized and have a good idea of what is going to bump and what isn’t. I think we are there and we’re very close.”

House and Senate negotiators are entering the final rounds of talks on a nearly $71 billion state budget. But early Friday morning, St. Petersburg Senator Jack Latvala, a Republican, sent a warning to leadership about conforming bills. They are part of the process ironing out the differences between Senate and House proposals.  Latvala doesn’t want conforming language in a budget to set policy. Last year he led and won a Senate revolt on the issue.

“I’m going to object very strenuously, and if I lose the battle upstairs. If this goes up upstairs, I’m going to object very strenuously on the floor to this and I’m just putting everybody on notice, it would be really a shame to affect this whole transportation bill because we tried to sneak substantive law into this.”

Conforming bills are supposed to be related to budget issues and sometimes are brought to the floor on the session’s closing day, providing little time to discuss or vet their content. Senators refused to pass a series of them last year saying bills affecting policy should be heard in committees and not presented in a take-it-or-leave-it budget bill. Latvala takes issue with five line items in the proposed House transportation conforming bill; one spends $30 million for a ports initiative and another increases the number of members of the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority.

Rep. Horner, the House’s lead negotiator on transportation, objected to Latvala’s use of the word “sneak” and said the language was appropriate for a budget bill.

“I think one could argue if you look at the individual items of the transportation package they are all items that do have a fiscal impact.  That do relate to the budget. These are not necessarily a stretch that we just put on.”

What the language may do those is undercut Latvala’s effort to pass an omnibus transportation bill. Horner says by including the five disputed items in a conforming bill it will ensure that the policy decisions they represent will be implemented if Latvala’s bill fails.   Critics in the Senate say that is exactly their objection. They argue the committee process is designed to provide ample policy discussion before the public. Without that discussion they say, potential unintended consequences are not revealed. And as New Port Richey Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican, notes, this leads to lawmakers not knowing what it is they are voting to do.

“It happens. Unfortunately it happens so quickly and late in the process many members including myself at times don’t know the full impact of the budget until comes summertime or the fall when we realize wow we voted for something in the process that may not be good for the people back home.”

Lakeland Senator Paula Dockery is also sounding an alarm about conforming bills. She wrote an opinion piece for the website Florida Voices saying legislative leaders are circumventing the committee process. She said the Senate passed 13 conforming bills which contained no language at all. Dockery called them blank checks that top officials can fill in with any of their priorities.

“So they can be vehicles for anything, any topic, any language. And that gives me great cause for worry because those bills will be coming back to us; we only have 12 hours of notice of them being printed and us being able to vote on them. And it takes a deliberate process that we have had 60 days to work through and potentially having us vote on things that never went through a committee that didn’t reach any kind of consensus that we can’t amend and we have to take it or leave it.”

 Hollywood Democratic representative Joe Gibbons says that is the very reason he wants a seat on a conference committee, to raise a red flag whenever there is a move to circumvent the committee process. When handled properly, Gibbons says conforming bills are a necessary tool for a 160-member legislature but he concedes there have been abuses.   

“It’s actually a smoothing process for what has already been done.  That’s the intent of it but unfortunately over the years it is not what has happened. Different things happened in conforming bills that sometimes were brand new. That is why we have to be vigilant about conforming bills.  I use vigilant with a capital V. as you know over the years a lot of bad things have happened in conforming bills.”

Conforming bills are part of the procedures implementing a state budget. Senate budget chief JD Alexander says legislative leaders want to finish budget negotiations Monday. A proposal has to be delivered to lawmakers by Tuesday for a vote to take place Friday, March 9th, the scheduled end of the 2012 legislative session.  Whether a dispute over conforming bills will delay action like it did last year remains to be seen.