TALLAHASSEE — A major overhaul of the state's growth management laws was tacked onto a budget bill by House and Senate leaders Friday, giving legislators a take-it-or-leave-it option of either rejecting the $67 billion-plus budget or accepting the controversial growth management legislation.
The unusual coupling of the budget bill with a broad policy change was accepted by the Senate, even though the issue had never been heard there.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, raised strong objections to the move by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the budget committee assigned to work out differences between the two chambers.
"It's just very sad," said Latvala. "We have said repeatedly that we're going to have open, full deliberation on issues brought before the Senate, and I think, in terms of the growth management bill, the actions have not measured up to the promise."
The measure guts the state's development oversight process, which was strengthened 26 years ago in an effort to control the rampant sprawl of strip malls and suburbs that left roads and schools overcrowded, plowed under wetlands and strained water supplies.
The bill shifts growth management oversight to local government, shrinks the state's role and makes it more difficult for citizens and advocacy groups to challenge development plans. Critics say developers will no longer have to pay for adequate roads, schools and parks, leading to the deterioration of quality of life.
The repeal of state growth oversight rules, and the dismantling of the Department of Community Affairs, has long been a priority of House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. The bill, HB 7129, passed the House 86-31. But when more modest reform was moving through the Senate, House members got worried.
"I'm nervous we're not going to get a bill at all,'' said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne. "It's a humongous bill. It's not something we want to get bogged down with special interests.''
The move surprised environmentalists, who had been supporting the Senate version of the growth management bill over the more dramatic changes offered by the House.
"It's outrageous," said Janet Bowman of the Nature Conservancy. "You would think that with a bill as significant as this you would err on the side of the most public hearing possible."
With less than a week left of the 60-day session, House and Senate leaders have increasingly made exceptions to their self-imposed rules in an effort to facilitate passage of bills they consider too thorny for a full debate.
But Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, made no apologies that the vote on a budget bill hamstrings senators to a yes or no vote, with no option for changing it.
"They have a choice to vote against it,'' he said. "I delegate responsibility and Sen. Gaetz thought that was a good deal. That's why we went that direction."
Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich of Weston said Democrats voted for the conference report on a promise from the Senate bill sponsor, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, that she could offer amendments on the floor on Monday. But conference reports are passed or defeated on up and down votes.
In the House, lawmakers passed a measure to impose tough new restrictions on local governments and citizens who want to challenge businesses that pollute. The bill, HB 991, is a compilation of several bills that include measures to streamline permitting, enable more dredging and rock mining and — what angers environmentalists — limit the ability of citizens to challenge such activities.
Budget negotiators on Friday resolved some of their differences on other matters, agreeing to direct $10 million for economic growth to Bay, Escambia, Franklin, Gulf, Okaloosa, Santa Rosa, Walton and Wakulla counties, areas hardest hit by the BP gulf oil spill, and earmarking 75 percent of future cash from BP to the eight counties.
The budget compromise includes a victory for Gov. Rick Scott, giving him a new state agency to be named the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. It would include the governor's Office of Tourism, Transportation and Economic Development, the Agency for Workforce Innovation and portions of the Department of Community Affairs.
The changes merge the Black Business Investment Board and the Florida Sports Foundation into Enterprise Florida. Space Florida retains its special district status under the Enterprise Florida board and Visit Florida becomes a direct support organization under contract with Enterprise Florida.
Lawmakers also gave Scott's new state department a $50 million "SEED Fund" for business projects. But that money, scaled back from the original House plan, would not be available until the 2012-13 fiscal year and is contingent on Scott's office submitting a "business plan" for the money to the Legislature.
The House and Senate budget chiefs will meet today to resolve a handful of differences in their budget drafts. Among them: pension reform, elements of the health care and criminal justice budget and privatizing prisons.
The Senate wants to privatize prisons in an 18-county region south of Bradenton. The House wants to limit the privatization to Miami-Dade and Broward.
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report.