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In last-minute budget talks, lawmakers add some $300+ million in new spending in dark of night

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At a final budget conference meeting that began at the tender hour of 11:05 p.m. and ran until nearly midnight, state budget writers failed to fully address new state funding for hospitals — the primary impetus for the June special session to begin with.

But they did find time to load up the budget with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for new projects, most of which had never seen the light of day or public comment until late in the evening.

“This is the way government should work,” House budget chief and rising Speaker-to-be Richard Corcoran told reporters following the precipitous meeting, which was noticed to the press at 10:05 p.m., five hours after the Capitol’s public entrance is locked each evening.

Afterwards Corcoran and his counterpart state Sen. Tom Lee both issued assurances that while the new items may take some observers by surprise, the process was transparent and projects were well-vetted.

Last-minute items added to the budget via 11th-hour proviso language include:

  • $17 million to relocate University of South Florida’s medical school.
  • $15 million for building construction at University of Central Florida.
  • $7 million to be placed in reserves for the purchase of new radios for state law enforcement personnel, a move state Sen. Jack Latvala said last week could amount to a “back door extension” of a contract held by Harris Corp., the state’s current radio communications vendor. (Sources familiar with the budget negotiations say the Brevard County-based company’s windfall was first requested by Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who represents Merritt Island on the Space Coast. Harris gave Florida Roundtable — Corcoran’s political committee — $25,000 the day before regular session began.)
  • $8.5 million in new funds for Enterprise Florida, at Gov. Rick Scott‘s request.
  • $6.8 million for school uniforms, which Corcoran afterwards explained was “a priority of the speaker.”
  • $1 million in recurring General Revenue funds for “programs designed to expand uses of beef and beef products and strengthen the market position of the cattle industry in this state and in the nation.”
  • $1 million for the assessment and evaluation of lands near Gasparilla Island State Park in Charlotte & Lee counties, despite grumblings from Speaker Crisafulli and other key legislative leaders that the state already owns too much land.
  • $1 million for the “Florida Virtual Curriculum Marketplace,” to “support small and rural districts with digital learning tools, digital resources, technical support and professional development opportunities for schools in the Panhandle Area Education Consortium (PAEC), Northeast Florida Education Consortium (NEFEC) and Heartland Consortiums and for schools in districts with 24,000 or FTE [full-time or equivalent] students.”

When flummoxed reporters asked questions about the odd timing of the final budget’s unveiling — including whether it was held up by more than a dozen legislators attending Jeb Bush‘s White House campaign announcement, including education budget chair state Sen. Don Gaetz, who was given a prime speaking slot ahead of a prospective bid for Congress — Senate budget chief Lee said it wasn’t a factor.

“I would love to stand here and blame someone else for the fact that we spent all day working through this painstaking process, line item by line item, but I’m not wired that way,” said Lee. “The fact that members were down in Miami, as easy as it would be to scapegoat on that, is not the reason we’re here at 11 or 12 o’clock at night.”

“[T]his has been the product of multiple days of discussions… the fact that you’re just now seeing it doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a real inclusive process in place,” Lee continued. “This is the democratic process.”

“This has been one of the most remarkable sessions for open, transparent debate” Corcoran said he had ever witnessed in his decades around the process before bidding reporters good night, adjourning his half of the discussion early.

Lawmakers will take up the final budget in House & Senate floor sessions on Friday, following a constitutionally mandated 72-hour waiting period.

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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