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So Much For Transparency: Concerns Mount Over Legislature's Shrouded Budget Plans

From the left Appropriations Chairs Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Lutz, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, begin the compromise process as full conference committee met June 11, 2015, while finalizing key portions of the state's budget within Criminal and Civil Just
Mark Foley
Florida House of Representatives

Florida lawmakers have a budget. But that’s come at the cost of a process that has in recent years, been a lot more transparent than it is now. Lawmakers have struck deals largely in secret, seemingly backtracking on House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s promise that this would be the most transparent process in legislative history.

Back in March, House Speaker Richard Corcoran made this declaration: “What I said was we will have the most open, the most accountable, the most transparent legislative session in the history of not only Florida, but of America."

And he's sticking to it.

“Listen, every single thing you’re seeing in the budget, for the first time since the '68 Constitution, you’re seeing it all. There was nothing that came in late, nothing that came in on the back of a napkin," he said.

"No longer in the conversations with the chairs are they saying ‘I have a new entrant’ all of that is gone, all of that last-minute budgeting. And the way that we are doing it is no different than every person has done it since ’68.”

But that’s not how other lawmakers feel. Democrats like Lori Berman have tried to call out lawmakers for the behind the scenes haggling on key issues: like Senate President Joe Negron’s Central Florida water reservoir, which wasn’t heard in any House committee before it was presented on the chamber floor.

"I move to refer SB 10 which wasn’t heard by any House committee, to the House Committee on Agriculture and Property Rights and the House Subcommittee on appropriations," Berman motioned.

The effort to get committee hearings on the bill failed. A vote on the reservoir was in exchange for effectively killing a bill allowing guns at courthouses, opposed by House Democrats.

As budget talks have unfolded there have been growing concerns about how the state budget has been ironed out—a process largely done in secrecy among top lawmakers. Legislative leaders have reached deals and made trades on major policy proposals like Negron’s reservoir out of the public eye. Yet, Senate Appropriations Chair Jack Latvala believes complaints are overblown, and says there have been changes in how budget talks are done.

“We’ve kept the subcommittee chairman involved, along with me, along with the presiding officer. In the House, I know chairman Truillo has been integrally involved even after issues bumped up to the presiding offer. So there’s been a wider group involved here than just the presiding officers," he said.

But the shroud of secrecy surrounding the state budget has caught the attention of the man whose job is whether to sign or veto it: Governor Rick Scott. The Florida Politics Blog reports Scott is slamming the budget negotiation process, and said he hasn’t seen what is or isn’t in it. Latvala’s response?

“Each meeting you’ll notice on each offer I’ve asked twice for public comment, and I talk to the Governor’s office staff two to three times a day. So they’re involved. But, they get the last lick. So, they’re gonna be involved and if they’re unhappy with us, they’ll have the opportunity to reflect that with the final product. I don’t want them to be unhappy with me.”

The governor may end up unhappy. Lawmakers are forging ahead with cuts to his favorite agencies, Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida. And they’ve also rejected his request for $200 million for repairs of the federally operated Herbert Hoover Dike, which surrounds Lake Okeechobee.