TALLAHASSEE — The grand jury that charged Rep. Ray Sansom and college president Bob Richburg with crimes Friday saved its harshest criticism for the Legislature itself — for backroom dealing and a culture dominated by special interest money that "has the potential to breed corruption."
"The appropriation process that gives unbridled discretion to the president of the Senate, speaker of the House of Representatives and appropriation chairmen needs to be changed. This state should be guided in openness and transparency," the grand jury report said. "This process allows taxpayer money to be budgeted for special purposes by those few legislators who happen to be in a position of power."
The report serves as a condemnation of two pillars of the Legislature: accountability and responsible use of public money. Citing testimony that last-minute, multimillion-dollar budget items like the Destin airport project are routine, the grand jury said: "It is small wonder, with this attitude, that Florida is broke financially. The Legislature needs to remember that they do not print money."
The report came out on a day when lawmakers were debating next year's budget and an uproar ensued over a House decision to block public testimony and approve an 81-page overhaul of Florida's election laws with virtually no debate.
The grand jury's findings rang true to Heather Walker, a League of Women Voters lobbyist who was denied the chance to testify on the election bill.
"It's the secrecy. It's the way their districts are drawn. So much money is given by special interests that the average person has trouble having their voice heard," Walker said. "Right now the Legislature definitely has a hostile tone toward open public debate. It's part of the culture there."
Power in the Legislature is concentrated in the hands of a few who control how money is spent, and the Legislature is not subject to the Sunshine Law that applies to cities and counties, so secret horse-trading is common.
The final budget is a work of compromise by a select few, and after a three-day cooling off period it is presented to all other legislators on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.
The Legislature's power structure is shaped like a pyramid, where unsettled budget issues move up the ladder until they reach the House and Senate budget chairmen, and ultimately the speaker and Senate president.
Budget deal-making is not only accepted but also celebrated. Two decades ago, then-Speaker T.K. Wetherell, now president of Florida State University, acknowledged storing $1 million for assorted projects in a budget category for a fictitious "Silver Beach." The trick was discovered, but the Commission on Ethics dismissed a complaint against Wetherell, calling the act "a temporary bookkeeping fiction."
The history of the Legislature is filled with powerful lawmakers stuffing the budget with money for hometown projects.
"Clearly, there has been a historical use of presiding officers to get things in the budget that they wouldn't otherwise get," said lobbyist John Thrasher, a former House speaker who was first elected when Democrats were still in charge.
Thrasher added that the Sansom controversy offers an obvious lesson to lawmakers: "Reform the process and remind people that this is not their money, it's the taxpayers' money."
Over the past decade, the Florida Legislature has become more partisan and less experienced. Term limits have created a revolving door in the House, and nearly all seasoned lawmakers are senators.
Some legislators said the grand jury doesn't understand how the Legislature works.
Dismissing the grand jury criticism, Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican, said: "It is presumptuous for an entity that doesn't know how the budget process works to make these conclusions. This is a hard process."
Sen. JD Alexander, a Republican from Winter Haven who currently controls the Senate's budget, said the Legislature's budget process is much more open than a congressional budget, which he described as "1,200 pages with handwritten notes in the margin."
After reading the grand jury report, Alexander called it "disturbing. It seems pretty political."
He noted that the system has checks and balances, including a three-day waiting period before a final vote and the governor's authority to veto specific line items.
"Putting together a budget is not an easy task," Alexander said. "All of our decisions at the end of the day will be published, and we will be held accountable to the people of Florida."
An episode that foreshadowed Friday's indictments occurred last year when then-House Democratic leader Dan Gelber of Miami Beach complained about the secretiveness of Sansom's budget dealings. In a Feb. 14, 2008, letter to the House speaker, Gelber, now a senator, wrote: "Many aspects of our budgetary process, including critical parts of the allocation and conference process, occur without public scrutiny."
But former House budget chairman Carlos Lacasa, a Miami Republican, said there is "nothing really nefarious" about the way budget deals are completed every spring.
"The Sunshine Law doesn't cover the process and to be honest, it shouldn't," Lacasa said. "You can't make policy at that level with a microphone in your face. It cannot be done and it should not be done. It will be too political."
Times researcher Will Gorham contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.