State lawmakers set aside millions for local projects out of the public eye
In their budget deal crafted more than a week ago, state lawmakers set aside $250,000 for a residency program at the St. Petersburg-based Florida Orchestra.
Five days later, with no discussion or explanation, funding for that program jumped to $500,000.
Similarly, the Senate agreed to a House plan Sunday night to spend $500,000 on roads, sidewalks and utilities around Miami's Design District. But when the budget was printed less than 48 hours later, that number had mushroomed into $750,000 for the once-rundown area of Miami now being transformed by art galleries, design showrooms and artist lofts.
"It's an ol' legislative magic trick," state Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said of the late money.
That magic trick, part of an age-old political tradition in the Capitol, has led to nearly $100 million in last-minute projects being funded after secret negotiations. Despite long days of public debates and assurances of transparency, it shows that critical spending decisions are still being made out of the public eye.
Often there are no visible fingerprints. Sometimes, lawmakers fess up.
State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said he has no qualms about defending $300,000 that emerged late in the budget for the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District. When the House and Senate first passed their budgets in mid February, neither included a cent for the project to convert 50,000 square feet of warehouse space to art studios in the Midtown area of St. Petersburg.
"You don't give up," Rouson said. "Therein lies the challenge for members. You have to work it to the sweet end."