Thursday, June 21, 2018
Politics

Budget surplus could be boon for local lawmakers' projects

TALLAHASSEE

The room was packed last week with lobbyists and agency representatives when House Speaker Will Weatherford spoke with lawmakers before negotiations began on next year's $74 billion budget.

"As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what's abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. "That's a good thing. We haven't seen that in a long time."

Everyone laughed, including the lawmakers who jammed the stage. But everyone also got Weatherford's point: After six years of anemic budgets, next year's spending plan is healthy enough to chase money for projects back home. Game on.

For Tampa Bay, that means a scramble to snag money that hasn't been available in years for pet projects and local line items. As budget conferences negotiations ended Tuesday, at least $10 million was snared in regional spending that agency budgets hadn't included.

House and Senate leaders agreed to spend $400,000 for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, a nonprofit outfit that runs a business incubator in Largo. The new money would pay for another incubator in St. Petersburg. Also set aside: $1 million for the renovation of Clearwater's Capitol Theatre, built in 1921 and operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall, which is in line for another $500,000 for its Murray Studio Theater. The Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg has been approved for $700,000 and the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts for $500,000.

"We're doing great," said Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, who chairs the Tampa Bay delegation. "There's actually money in the budget this year."

Derided by some as turkeys because they aren't included in state agency budget requests, the projects are prized by lawmakers who point to them at election time as evidence of how effective they are in Tallahassee.

"For some lawmakers it's more important than others," said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, the ranking Democrat on the House budget committee. "People vote for you sometimes on how much of the bacon you bring back."

But how the money gets approved isn't even widely known among most lawmakers. Budget negotiations are in private, among Republican leaders. Meetings announcing the decisions are public, but don't explain key details, such as the rationale for the spending, what was swapped for it, and who asked for it.

Dig for details and it only gets more confusing. Take the Straz Center. Though it applied for a grant through the Division of Cultural Affairs, the Straz received no money in either the House or Senate budget.

But late Friday, $500,000 suddenly appeared in the Senate spending plan. On Sunday, the House agreed.

Asked why the money was suddenly included, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, the vice chair of the committee, said it came from the Senate, though no senator claimed credit.

The Straz "was seventh on the ranking list, so it was certainly a valid request," Hooper explained about the grant application.

Yet the list that Hooper referred to is hardly a guide for what was approved. The Division of Cultural Affairs evaluated 22 projects and ranked them in order of worthiness for state grants. The Straz actually ranked sixth. But it was only one of four projects recommended for funding. The others ranked first, 13th and 16th.

Judith Lisi, president and CEO of the Straz, said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, called her on Friday and told her the committee was ignoring rankings.

"(Lee) was great because he somehow got it back on," Lisi said. "It turned out lawmakers were cherry picking projects, funding ones that were either lower than us or weren't even on the list."

A lot of work went into applying for the grant, Lisi said, which will pay for a $2 million overhaul of the center's 25-year-old air conditioning. In her 20 years at the Straz, state funding has always mimicked the list. This year's funding, that doesn't seem to follow it at all, will set a precedent, she said.

Of course, Lisi and others aren't cashing checks yet. The budget is due in final form on Tuesday, and changes can happen until the final minute.

Projects that survive the Legislature must still avoid Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen.

In his first year in office in 2011, Scott vetoed $615 million in member projects. Last year, Scott vetoed $143 million in various projects.

This year, Scott's political calculations hinge on two of his top priorities: $2,500 automatic pay raises for teachers and $278 million to attract and keep businesses to bolster his bona fides as a "jobs" governor. As of Tuesday, lawmakers wanted to make the raises tied to performance and include non-instructional personnel, and were offering a pot of incentives between $70 million and $81 million.

At this point, the threat of veto is Scott's best friend. Like a good card player, Scott's not showing his hand. When asked what projects he intended to veto this year, his office released a short statement that could chill the blood of any lawmaker protecting a turkey.

"The governor has priorities," his office said in a statement Monday that he repeated almost word-for-word when pressed by reporters Tuesday. "The Legislature has priorities. There's still enough time left to determine how successful this session will be for all of us."

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Kathleen McGrory contributed to this story.

   
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