Questions abound on Senate’s economic development panel

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David Royse of the News Service of Florida reports that the Senate’s Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee will meet again late Wednesday afternoon, with hopes for smoothing of feathers ruffled when the budget emerged this week with several items members don’t like.

Sens. Jack Latvala, Mike Fasano and Jim Norman, all Republicans, led questioning on Tuesday of the panel’s chairwoman, Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, as she tried to explain the budget the panel will recommend to Senate leadership this week.

A number of line items came into question, including several “member projects,” that the panel is recommending paying for. Some of those were vetoed last year by Gov. Rick Scott, raising questions for Fasano, among others, about why they should be funded again at the expense of other projects that aren’t being recommended.

The budget proposal Benacquisto outlined on Tuesday recommends money for several economic development projects in depressed areas of Orlando, all of them rejected last year by Scott. In all, those programs account for just $3.9 million of the $8.5 billion proposal, but that’s money that could go to other needs, said Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

“If the governor vetoed these dollars, why are we putting them back in the budget?” Fasano asked in an interview. He’d rather see the money go for other programs lawmakers have funded in the past, but that aren’t paid for or are cut by the Senate’s proposed budget as it is shaping up so far this year, including the SCHIP program, which provides housing-related grants statewide and other affordable housing programs. Scott is likely to veto the Orlando projects again, anyway, he argued.

The proposed economic development budget includes nearly $80 million for Scott’s signature job-seeking push, a fund that can be used to lure businesses to the state. Another $50 million in the plan could go for statewide economic development, but would need an OK from the Legislative Budget Commission. The money put forward by the Senate for incentives is a fraction of the more than $200 million sought by Scott.

Norman, R-Tampa, questioned Benacquisto’s recommendation for failing to pay enough for military armory upgrades, which he said in an interview that he sees as vital to showing the military that Florida is committed to being its partner as the Defense Department begins a new round of base closure assessments. The Senate proposal suggests $4 million for armories that the executive branch had said would need $15 million.

“This is a way we can show the military that partnership,” said Norman, who asked the committee to provide him with a list of member projects that were asked for by particular senators that ended up in the budget. He acknowledged that the armories were a local issue to him, but he said, “This isn’t a shot at any one member, but that (armories) to me is a statewide issue.”

Several members of the budget subcommittee criticized the process on Tuesday, saying that committee members had several questions about the proposal, and didn’t have time to discuss it before the end of this week when it will go to Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander. The subcommittee won’t vote on the budget, which is essentially a recommendation to Alexander, because he can move items around in the final budget bill.

“What’s the rush?” asked Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. “Too many of these programs we have lots of questions on.”

Senate President Mike Haridopolos added the meeting of the committee on Wednesday afternoon to allow senators more time to review and ask questions about the items in the proposal. Benacquisto also said members could continue to question items through the week, and she slowed down the presentation of the budget proposal on Tuesday to allow for more questions.

Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, had questions about assumptions built into the budget on the consolidation of some expressway authority and turnpike operations and Bennett had questions about the money going to the expressway authorities. Others had questions about the housing finance agency’s funding, though Latvala said afterward that he was satisfied the committee members would have “plenty of time” to vet the budget before the end of the week.

In the transportation part of the budget, there was good news for road builders. The plan shifts more than $415 million from driver fees directly into the transportation trust fund, which is used for transportation projects. The fund is generally filled by gas tax revenue, but has often been “swept” in recent years to fill holes in the state’s general fund. While the transportation fund would also be raided for $287 million that goes back into general revenue under the Senate plan, it comes out ahead because of the driver fee shift.

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.