In a session that promises its share of conflict, opening day highlighted some cooperation as the House and Senate adopted a joint rule governing member projects. This smooths over a major obstacle in the road to a successful and timely completion of the next state budget.
Florida TaxWatch has written about the new House rule for member projects, which goes a long way in adding more transparency to the budget process. That rule required that for a project to be in the House budget, it had to be requested in a single-subject bill that was approved by a committee or subcommittee and accompanied by specified information about the request. A project could be added in conference if a bill had simply been filed. Any budget or conference report that contained a project that didn’t meet the required would be “out of order.”
The Senate balked at the rule, saying the House could not dictate to it. Senate Appropriation Chair Jack Latvala said the rule cause the budget to “ground to a halt” by the fifth week in session. There was even talk of the Senate suing the House. But cooler heads prevailed and the Speaker and President agreed on a new joint rule that was adopted on the first day of session.
This new rule adopts many long-standing TaxWatch recommendations and makes the appropriations and Conference process more consistent with the TaxWatch Budget Turkey review process. First, the new rule keeps the definition of what is and what isn't an "appropriation project" (read: “member project”) in a manner that is very consistent with our Turkey criteria.
A project must be included in a "bill or amendment placed into a budget conference.” Furthermore, detailed information on such projects must be provided, both in writing and online before it is added to the budget. This means that no member project can be added to the budget during the conference, which is the foundation of our Turkey Report. The amount of funding may be increased, or decreased, during conference. Appropriation projects may only be funded with non-recurring money.
Speaker Corcoran says the House will still follow its original rule, but the Senate doesn’t need a bill to a pass to include a project in its budget. However, the required information must be provided prior to inclusion in the budget.
Time will tell how the new rule works in practice, but this rule presents a real opportunity for significant reform of the budget process. Moreover, it represents a step forward in transparency and accountability in the budget process by adopting many aspects of the TaxWatch Budget Turkey process and incorporating many long-standing TaxWatch concepts and recommendations. If the Legislature adheres to the rule, this budget may be “turkey-free.”
That does not mean there will not be member projects. To date (March 15), 1205 appropriations project bills have been filed in the House, averaging out to 12 per member. The projects total more $2.6 billion and this does not even include any potential Senate projects.
The House appropriation subcommittees have been taking up these bills over the last few weeks. So far, 305 bills have been approved, meaning they are eligible for the House budget (although it is stressed subcommittee approval does not guarantee inclusion in the budget). As expected, it has been a rather pro forma exercise, no bill has been voted down and, a quick review of the votes found only 9 no votes among the more than 3,000 cast. With some exceptions, there has been little discussion or debate. An exception was this week’s House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, which spent more than two hours debating 13 appropriation project bills. Six of the no votes were cast on one bill--a fixed capital outlay project for a private preschool. That bill received significant questions and discussion, but it ultimately passed 8-6. Chair Manny Diaz, Jr. and the committee members are to be commended for taking this process seriously, thoughtfully, and deliberatively, and for being good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
At least the opportunity, and the information, exists for objections to be raised. Hopefully, thorough vetting by staff is taking place before projects make it to a vote. And most importantly, if the rule is adhered to, projects will no longer appear out of the blue, being slipped into the conference report at the last minute.