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A last minute hitch in budget negotiations a matter of PRIDE

A behind-the-scenes effort by a Brandon company to maintain its monopoly on the manufacturing of state license tags has snagged the final hours of negotiations of the state's $74 billion budget.

On Friday, the House and Senate closed out the transportation portion of the state budget, agreeing to throw out language that the House wanted that would have reserved the job of making state license tags to PRIDE, which oversees the current manufacturing of plates.

"The Senate respectfully believes that it's better not to limit the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when they look for cost saving alternatives for manufacturing license plates," said Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "And we prefer that that be a competitive process rather than limited to one particular vendor."

House Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland agreed, and said the House was comfortable with dropping it.

So eyebrows were raised Saturday morning when Negron announced that he and McKeel were re-opening negotiations on transportation.

"I just wanted to let people know that we may have issues to discuss with proviso at a later meeting in case anyone was interested in that," Negron said. "I just do that to make the process more transparent."

What exactly is the issue?

Negron didn't say at the 10 a.m. meeting, but the Times/Herald has learned it could be the license tags that appeared to have been settled the previous day.

Although it sounds mundane, license tags are big business.

For the past 30 years, Prison Rehabilitative Industries and Diversified Enterprises, Inc., or PRIDE, has had that contract, using prison inmates to produce the tags. But the plates, with their embossed, slightly raised combinations of six letters and numbers, are hard to read for video cameras at tolls. Every time a tag can't be read, it costs the state money.

Since last year, the state has tried to tried to ditch the old plates and design new ones -- at a cost of $31 million -- so that it's easier for cameras and police officers to see. The tags would be flat, however, and not have raised type -- requiring equipment that would cost PRIDE more.

The state's plan has met with resistance. County tax collectors who distribute the tags oppose the state plans to distribute them online, arguing that there won't be any cost savings. And PRIDE doesn't want to lose its business.

"It's an integral part of our business, and we want to stay in the tag business," PRIDE's lobbyist, Wilbur Brewton, told the Times/Herald last year.

Earlier this month, PRIDE and tax collectors won a round when an administrative law judge ruled that the state's bid to seek new vendors, which are rumored to include the 3MCorp., was too confusing and ill-defined.

The language that the House wanted to put in the budget would have been another victory for PRIDE. It limited the manufacturing of tags to non-profits who use prison labor (PRIDE) and reserved the tags to the embossed lettering that PRIDE provides.

Negron seemed pretty definitive Friday when he took that language out of the budget, striking a chord for good governance by saying the Senate wanted this contract to be competitive. So if it comes back, what rationale will be provided for the public this time?

Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said Saturday he had heard the Senate brought the language back up, he just didn't know why or who. He said he didn't know who on the House side was pushing for it on Friday. By the way, Crisafulli sits on the joint appropriations committee that's hammering out these details, and he's also in line to become Speaker in 2014, so if he can't provide insight, who exactly can?

To get the wording back in play means there's someone of great importance on the Senate side pushing it. Senate President Don Gaetz couldn't be reached for comment.

-- Michael Van Sickler and Steve Bousquet