In another era, this probably wouldn’t qualify as news. In another state, it might go largely unnoticed.
But here in Florida, amid the most secretive, duplicitous, unapproachable administration Tallahassee has seen in years, it’s darn near heroic.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, turned heads last week when he suggested a new formula for determining which pet projects might end up in the state budget.
And what exactly was this radical idea of his?
This means (for the most part) no back-room deals. It means (to some degree) no big shot controlling the purse strings. This means (hopefully) no legislator using a political maze to conceal appropriations requests.
What Latvala suggested was an “open mic” meeting in two weeks for anyone who has a major local project they want to pitch to his transportation, tourism and economic development appropriations subcommittee. Latvala is loosely defining “major project” as anything seeking $1 million or more in the budget.
“There are a whole lot of projects that have already been brought to me, and some are asking for a lot of money,” Latvala said. “The whole committee should hear what I hear, rather than me making arbitrary decisions.
“I just want some help, some other ears listening to the pitches, and that way, as a committee, we’ll be able to establish what our priorities are going to be.”
Sounds simple. Sounds efficient. Sounds logical.
Which, of course, makes it something of an anomaly.
“This is how it should work, and occasionally it does work this way, but lately there’s been a lot less of this type of transparency and common sense,” said Kurt Wenner, vice president of research for Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit that analyzes state spending. “The vast majority of member projects are good and worthwhile, but that’s not the point.
“When these projects are brought up in conference without any discussion, or worse, they just show up at the last minute, you’re going to have the potential for abuse.”
Once upon a time, there was a little more accountability to local projects. The Legislature used to maintain a Community Budget Issue Request System that forced lawmakers and lobbyists to make formal requests for appropriations back home.
When the economy led to a budget crunch in 2008, the system was abandoned in the hope of limiting requests. Unfortunately, that led to projects being pitched directly to committee chairmen with little, or no, public notice.
While his idea raised a few eyebrows in the Capitol, Latvala said it wasn’t something he spent a lot of time contemplating. He actually brought it up last week before getting approval from Senate President Andy Gardiner, although he expects his blessing.
Latvala was also emphatic that he was not abdicating any power.
“Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing that will preclude me from putting something in the budget that I think needs to be there,” Latvala said. “This is just a baby step in the process of bringing a little more transparency to the conversation.”
Baby step or not, it’s a move in the right direction.
For a state government that has been actively circumventing Sunshine Laws and purposefully overstepping its authority, having one of Florida’s most powerful lawmakers advocating for more openness is news worth celebrating.
Original article here.