May 5, 2017

Budget Negotiation Transparency? Lots of Clouds, Little to No Sunshine

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an optimistic realist. I’ve spent the entirety of my career figuring out how to get stuff done. With decades of experience, I have never seen legislative budget and major policy processes as mired in secrecy as this year’s negotiations.

Rank and file Florida House members were required to file bills for issues for which they were requesting funds. Lobbyists were required to register with the House to identify bills and funding issues on which they are working. Taking its cue from the House, the Senate sought public input on member issues requested for inclusion in its budget bill.

So far, so good. Each side passed its budget in a timely manner. All of the expenditures had a public vetting. It was great while it lasted.

There are deep ideological divides been the Florida House and Senate. Both pledged transparency in the development of their budgets. However, with few public meetings and no additional input on major policy issues, legislative leaders have crafted major budget and policy bills behind closed doors.

Today is the last day of regular legislative session. Although we’ve been told on at least three occasions, on three consecutive days, that the budget is done, we have yet to see the final product. When the chairmen of the chambers’ appropriations committees met last night, we were told that budget would be on members’ desks this morning.

The Florida Constitution requires that legislators receive the budget agreement no less than three days before the Legislature adjourns. The agreement cannot be amended. It has to be passed or defeated. There is no in-between.

So what happened? Once the bills passed their respective chambers, the wheels came off the transparency wagon.

Normally, the Legislature takes 10 to 14 days to negotiate the budget and corresponding policy. This year, with a $2 billion difference between the two budgets, legislative leaders couldn’t agree on the bottom line for the final budget. By the time an agreement was reached, little time remained for public meetings. Many of the big decisions were made between the leaders behind closed doors. For the very brief period we saw them, subcommittee negotiators appeared to have limited bargaining authority, leaving major decisions in the hands of leadership.

Leadership will argue that the Legislature offered ample public meetings and sought public input at every one. In reality, the public needs to have relevant documents before the meetings to provide coherent feedback. Frequently, these documents weren’t available until the meetings concluded.

Conforming bills, permanent statutory changes intended to implement specific budget-related provisions, have only been discussed for one of the seven subcommittees. Several of the bills address substantial, controversial policy revisions. The bills have yet to be released to the public.

Legislators will go home today and return Monday to vote on the state budget and conforming bills. The later the budget is delivered today, the more reason to be wary of its contents. Technically, the conforming bills don’t have to be delivered until Sunday.

It’s really difficult to trust a Legislature that negotiates in secret and releases the results of its negotiations with no time for interested or affected people to effect change. None of these bills can be amended. Each can only be accepted or rejected.

The past three weeks made a mockery of government in the sunshine. Legislative leaders have always had ample opportunity to exercise their will without having to resort to cloak and dagger tactics.

If the secrecy with which the bills have been constructed is any indication of nefarious contents, legislators would be well advised to reject them. Until we see them, we just won’t know.

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