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Committee OKs Senate budget that contains Aramis Ayala money shift, for now

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The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a proposed $83.2 billion state budget Wednesday after its chairman agreed to study a proposal to shift $1.3 million from Orlando State Attorney Aramis Ayala’s office.

Sen. Randolph Bracy withdrew his amendment to restore the money after Jack Latvala said he would work on a possible floor amendment.

“Let us work a little more on an approach here that’s a little bit more than all-or-nothing,” Latvia said.

“I look forward to working with you to see how we can address the 9th Circuit’s concerns,” Bracy replied.

The underlying budget would raise spending by 1 percent over existing levels, and leave $3.1 billion in reserves, Latvala said.

The House is looking at spending $81.2 billion.

The Senate committee spent the morning explaining its plans and working through more than 100 amendments, most of which members adopted without controversy. Many, Latvala said, were drafted to comply with a new House-Senate rule requiring a committee hearing for bills considered in conference committee.

Among the measures adopted were a prospective payment plan for reimbursing nursing homes for treating Medicaid patients that has divided the industry. The committee also approved a bill that would steer three-quarters of the state’s share of the BP oil spill settlement to the worst-affected counties in the Panhandle.

The draft budget would transfer money from Ayala’s 9th Circuit to the office of 5th Circuit State Attorney Brad King. Gov. Rick Scott has appointed King to handle death-penalty-eligible cases in the 9th Circuit after Ayala announced that she would never seek the death penalty.

Bracy’s amendment would have put the money back.

But the committee heard conflicting testimony about whether the governor’s move justified the budget hit to Ayala.

Bill Cervone, state attorney for the 8th Circuit, argued that King will have to bring a sizeable staff contingent to Orlando to handle Ayala’s 22 murder cases.

“It would be ethically improper for any employee of the 9th Circuit to work on these cases. A conflict exists, system-wide,” Cervone said.

Kamilah Perry, Ayala’s executive director and general counsel, disputed that, saying her boss has assigned two attorneys to work with King and is cooperating pending a decision on whether to challenge Scott in court.

The $3.1 million represents money the Legislature gave the circuit last year to launch an initiative against human trafficking and domestic violence — and, Bracy said later, to ease disproportionately low funding levels compared to other prosecutors’ offices.

“It would just dramatically impact their ability to prosecute cases,” Bracy said of the diversion.

Is Bracy confident he can work something out?

“I’m hopeful,” he said. “As testimony was given, the more we discussed it, I think he realized the impact it could have on the circuit’s ability to prosecute those cases,” and support the human trafficking and domestic violence divisions.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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