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Budget conferees agree on general gov’t and prison funding issues, bump state radios funds

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Senior budget writers met Sunday afternoon to continue hammering out differences in House and Senate appropriations proposals, still hundreds of millions of dollars apart.

In keeping with their recent meetings since committee sub-chairs “bumped up” remaining budget issues to the at-large budget conference, Chair Rep. Richard Corcoran and Vice Chair Sen. Tom Lee – their respective chambers’ appropriations chiefs – made swift progress at the hearing, though a simmering industry “fist fight” over state police radios slowed down discussions over the weekend and prevented the panel from meeting on Saturday.

The House proposed a compromise on funding for the governor’s office, a bill on retirement for state employees, prisons, and several general government budget issues, which the Senate accepted. The House responded in kind to the upper chamber’s offer on similar internal facets of state government funding.

Lawmakers nixed a funding request for $7 million for new law enforcement radios requested on behalf of Harris Corporation, which currently holds a lucrative contract to service state communications infrastructure. The issue will ultimately be decided by Speaker Steve Crisafulli and President Andy Gardiner.

The Senate is averse to the line item, which key senators have said could jeopardize an upcoming competitive bidding process by bolstering Harris’ incumbency. House leaders, on the other hand, have said state police need the new equipment to replace outdated models.

The chief budget writers sounded a bit annoyed with the Department of Corrections’ ongoing request for 734 new positions, saying they already have plenty of resources in the budget as written and suggesting they ought to do a better job with the funding they already have.

Secretary Julie Jones, said Corcoran, “needs to start figuring out ways to downsize” the department.

“Having 100,000 inmates is unmanageable for anybody, any place, any time, and she needs to work on that,” said Corcoran. “She needs to give us a plan on how the Department of Corrections can be about our hardest and most difficult prisoners and work on a plan for those that are not that difficult. Instead of having to learn to become more difficult, hardened criminals, there ought to be a path for those people to go back and re-assimilate into society. So there’s give and take on both sides to make the department better.”

“The department over the last few days is shifting the conversation from the problems they have in the prison system to 734 new employees,” added Lee. “What they haven’t told you is they have 1,500 vacant positions. And the reason they’re not able to to hire is because of the cultural problems they have in the system, not because they don’t have enough positions authorized under statute.”

“So I think they’ve got their hands full, and Chair Corcoran is precisely correct. We’re happy to help them over time try to get where they need to get, but they need to get their house in order,” said Lee.

Lee and Corcoran also added new proviso language creating a database to track travel for state officials, something not included in previous negotiations.

“We’ve had issues over the past umpteen decades with travel,” said Corcoran after the hearing. “So, why don’t we put together a platform that’s easily accessible by all the agencies where they can upload all their travel, and Joe Citizen can go on there and they can search ‘Representative Richard Corcoran,’ and they can see all my travel in real time.”

“When you have that kind of accountability, you have people being better fiscal stewards with they taxpayers’ money,” said Corcoran, adding the move was not intended to address any specific recent issues, rather issues going back to “ancient Greece, since government has existed.”

Conferees also agreed on $2.4 million to fund a marginal pay increase for firefighters and some state lab technicians, and not to accommodate the governor’s request to increase health insurance costs for state workers.

Disagreements between the House and Senate still remain, particularly relating to education, where major stumbling blocks on new school construction and issuing bonds to finance it loom large as lawmakers try to sew up budget talks.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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