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A user's guide to avoiding the next 'Taj'

The new Florida 1st District Court of Appeal building, dubbed the “Taj,” shows what happens when the budget process is hijacked.

Photo by COLIN HACKLEY (2010)

The new Florida 1st District Court of Appeal building, dubbed the “Taj,” shows what happens when the budget process is hijacked.

TALLAHASSEE

Could it happen again?

Was the new $50 million "Taj Mahal" built by the 1st District Court of Appeal a one-time breakdown of the state's budgeting process or could someone else hijack the state's budgeting process and walk away with a luxurious new building?

Some lawmakers think the new courthouse pushed by judges who are former legislative budget staffers and lobbyists for the Florida State University College of Law was a "perfect storm" of events that aren't likely to recur.

Other observers think it could easily happen in the final chaotic days of a legislative session when lawmakers are focused on other issues and a few leaders want to plant money for a pet project in the state's $65 billion budget.

"This has been a good lesson, an expensive lesson but it has given us a chance to step back and make sure things like this don't happen again," says Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher.

"You had two extraordinarily experienced guys on the court who knew how to get things done in this process, a Legislature willing to provide the resources and a bond issue and a state agency that didn't have the kind of leadership it needed.

"It truly was a perfect storm. We hope it will never happen again," Thrasher added. "And I doubt you'll ever see two judges so closely involved in this process. They should have been taking care of court cases and not worrying about building courthouses.

"There was nothing wrong with budgeting money for a new courthouse," adds House Speaker Dean Cannon. "But the folks at the court were not responsible in the way they spent money and the Department of Management Services failed to use good judgement and adequately oversee the design and construction."

The new courthouse isn't the first frivolous item placed in the state budget. It has happened many times before as lawmakers try to take home community swimming pools, civic centers and even football stadiums for their constituents.

One of the most interesting items ever included in the state budget was put there in 1980 by then-Senate President W.D. Childers of Pensacola: $8 million for a football stadium at the University of West Florida, a school that has never had a football team. Then-Gov. Bob Graham, a University of Florida graduate, took care of the stadium with his veto pen, but the gambit remains among the most admired examples of salting the state budget with pork.

The pricey new courthouse completed in December got most of its money in 2007 thanks to aggressive lobbying by judges Paul M. Hawkes and Brad Thomas. Both worked in the Legislature and for Gov. Jeb Bush's budget office before Bush appointed them to the court in 2003 and 2005.

The judges got a lot of help from FSU lobbyists (who wanted the old courthouse for the law school) and longtime connections in the Senate and House. The bulk of the money for the building was in a $33.5 million bond issue authorized in a last-minute amendment slipped into a 142-page transportation bill on the last day of session.

Thrasher, a former House speaker who was elected to the Senate in 2009, was among the FSU lobbyists the judges hailed as "heroes" for helping, but says he had no idea what the judges were actually building and wasn't in the Legislature when it happened.

Many legislators, including Thrasher, said they knew nothing about the bond issue until the St. Petersburg Times wrote about it three years later. Most thought they had put $7.9 million in the budget to begin planning and construction on the courthouse. Some viewed a bond issue as a possibility for a future year.

State auditors concluded that the Department of Management Services, the state agency charged with overseeing construction projects, let the judges bully it into accepting luxuries such as miles of African mahogany, granite countertops and desks as well as kitchens, bathrooms and 60-inch television screens for every judge.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles T. Canady has revamped the rules to restrict judges from getting too involved in lobbying for individual projects and turned over supervision of all state court construction projects to the office of the State Court Administrator Lisa Goodner.

Canady, in an unusual move, blasted the new courthouse, saying he could not justify "extravagant expenditures" that led to a "grandiose, monumental and luxurious" building.

Some lawmakers say they need new rules that would require more scrutiny of last-minute amendments with a fiscal impact while others say existing rules would have prevented the bond issue if anyone had paid attention to them.

Unfortunately, the most frequently heard phrase in the closing days of any legislative session is a request to "waive the rules," a step that often leads to the discovery that some one was being snookered with a sneaky amendment that ultimately makes lawmakers look stupid.

Times senior correspondent Lucy Morgan can be reached at [email protected]

A user's guide to avoiding the next 'Taj' 03/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, March 4, 2011 6:14pm]
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