Legislative Budget Commission approves mortgage, Taj Mahal funds

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The Legislative Budget Commission approved nearly two dozen amendments to the state budget Thursday, officially untangling some long-standing disputes with unanimous votes and minimal discussion.

Lawmakers approved the first spending from $334 million Florida received as part of a national mortgage settlement with bankers.

The amendments voted on Thursday will divvy up $60 million in funding, including $35 million for down-payment assistance, $10 million for housing counseling, $5 million for legal aid and $5 million each for state courts and the office of Attorney General Pam Bondi to deal with legal and foreclosure costs.

Bondi and the Legislature had argued about who had the authority to decide how to spend the money before they reached agreement in November.

“Floridians will now benefit from millions in down-payment assistance, housing counseling, legal aid and better funded courts for foreclosure-related issues,” Bondi said in a statement released by her office. “I am proud that by working with the Legislature, we have ensured that the settlement funds go to the people who need it most –Florida’s homeowners.”

The panel also approved $513,884 to settle a lawsuit over artwork originally intended for the new 1st District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee. Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and his predecessor, former CFO Alex Sink, had refused to pay for historical photographs prepared by Signature Art Gallery, a Tallahassee firm, for the opulent building derisively known as the “Taj Mahal” courthouse.

That refusal prompted a series of legal disputes that engulfed the Department of Management Services, the Department of Financial Services, Atwater and Peter R. Brown Construction, which subcontracted the work to Signature Art Gallery.

The settlement needed the LBC’s approval, which some lawmakers made clear came only begrudgingly after the public and legislative uproar that followed a full accounting of the grand design of the new courthouse, which opened in 2010.

“Unfortunately, a small business owner got caught up in the dispute,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “But I want to thank CFO Atwater for keeping a close eye on the state’s checkbook and for working hard to make sure that the Legislature’s authority in budget matters is followed.”

Lawmakers also approved funding related to recent natural disasters, including an effort to restore oyster bars in Apalachicola Bay, and funding to test and promote seafood as part of the ongoing response to the BP oil spill.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.