By MATT DIXON
TALLAHASSEE _ It was Tuesday in the state Capitol, and most thought Florida’s roughly $75 billion proposed spending plan was complete.
Then a notice appeared.
At 2:18 p.m. on the day the budget needed to be finalized, a notice came out that House and Senate budget chiefs were holding another meeting. It lasted roughly 30 seconds, but added $4.5 million to the state’s spending plan.
Of that, $2 million was for Lauren’s Kids, a nonprofit headed by the daughter of prominent lobbyist Ron Book. The nonprofit, which helps children who are the victims of sexual abuse, ended up with $3.8 million in the Legislature’s final budget.
“The House had requested the Senate to require several additional items. That was the purpose of this meeting,” said state Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, during brief remarks.
It’s emblematic of how the state’s spending plan comes together, largely behind the scenes with a few brief public meetings. Because of a 72-hour “cooling off period” required by law, legislators had to finalize the budget Tuesday in order to vote on it by Friday, the last day of this year’s legislative session.
“The whole thing is a faade it’s all done behind the scenes, staff going back and forth,” said former state Rep. Mike Fasano, New Port Richey. “It’s not nearly as transparent as it could be.”
Fasano served in both the House and Senate, including stints as chairman of appropriations subcommittees. In 2013, Gov. Rick Scott appointed him Pasco County tax collector.
Each year, lawmakers stress that the process is transparent because they periodically have public meetings. During those meetings, staff members briskly read remaining differences between the House and Senate spending plans.
“I think that our goal is to have a process where all offers are in writing,” Negron said. “They’re all exchanged publicly.”
There is no information given about why one chamber decided to increase or decrease a spending area, decided to add or remove a project, or moved around pots of money.
Hanging in the balance is billions of taxpayer dollars. When budget-writers went into the final stage of negotiations — known as “conference committee” — both chambers agreed to allocate roughly $75 billion in the 2014-15 state budget, a number that jumped to $77.1 billion during final negotiations.
There is an element of secrecy to the entire budget process, which is hashed out by a mix of staff, lobbyists and lawmakers who sit on the Senate’s budget-writing committees.
Former state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said the budget process has changed through the years. It’s always had a necessary amount of “behind the scenes” deal-making to close out the budget, but that’s increasing.
“It was rare for new issues to pop up” after conference, said Dockery, who also served as a member of the House. Now “huge items appear from nowhere more money is added after allocations, and huge policy issues tie up funding.”
There are subcommittees that craft spending plans for each individual policy area — education, for instance. Then the larger appropriations committee melds those into one final spending plan. Finding out who is behind getting a specific amount of money into the more than 400-page budget is virtually impossible.
This year, with an additional $1.3 billion to spend, there were some odd elements to the process.
Typically each year, lawmakers hold a budget weekend, which includes meetings on Saturday and Sunday leading into the final week of the legislative session. This year, however, lawmakers called no meetings Saturday. On Sunday, they met at 3 p.m. and then many people, including some lawmakers, didn’t think there would be any other meetings.
But an 11:10 p.m. meeting was called Sunday at which Negron and House Budget Chief Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, announced a deal had been reached on many portions of the budget. Many lobbyists who attended the meeting said they already had been in bed, because they didn’t expect to come back.
When asked by reporters afterward, the lawmakers gave no indication what the holdup was over, which specific issues needed to be hashed out, or who was involved in the process.
“I feel like it’s a really strong budget and we can be proud,” Negron told reporters after hammering out the late-night deals to nearly finalize the process.