The turmoil and travails of getting — and keeping — a hometown project in the massive state budget

By: - May 10, 2019 7:00 am
Pulse Nightclub

The names of victims, written outside the Pulse nightclub just after the 2016 massacre in Orlando, Credit: Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

In the final days of the Florida legislative session, State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith squeaked $500,000 into the state’s massive budget – money to set up a memorial and museum to honor the 49 victims of Orlando’s horrifying 2016 Pulse nightclub mass shooting.

It wasn’t easy for him to make that happen, especially as a Democrat in the Republican-led Legislature.

Smith, of Orlando, asked Republican colleague Holly Raschien from Key Largo to file the legislation for him, knowing he might not get far as an outspoken member of the minority party. When she said yes, Smith worked behind the scenes, making his case to a key House budget leader and urging colleagues to help.

He couldn’t push too hard because an overkill could doom the project. He couldn’t panic either.

“It was always in play, but always at risk,” Smith says.

And it’s not over yet in the difficult atmosphere of cajoling and lobbying and strategizing and working every room, all to bring home the bacon –big or small.

In the coming weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis will approve or veto the Pulse project and hundreds more local projects that landed in the state budget for 2019-20. These are the pet projects that lawmakers, with the help of lobbyists, use to help their communities, constituents and political donors.

The Florida Phoenix identified about 625 local projects in the final state budget, though there are likely more because some projects aren’t identified as such.

But the 625 number, representing close to $450-million, is a significant cut from what lawmakers tried, but failed to get in the budget. At the beginning of the session, the state House had a list that ballooned to 1,630 projects totaling $3.7-billion, and the Senate had a list that added up to $3.5-billion for 1,673 projects, state records show.

Now that the list has been culled, and the budget passed, no one wants a veto. Lawmakers and locals who get the state dollars want the projects – for better or worse — to remain in the state budget, ensuring that roads, schools, community centers, museums and other initiatives get funded.

Right now, Brandon Groover says he’s praying that there will be no veto.

He’s with the Vision Christian Ministries in Jacksonville, a ministry that (among other things), works with struggling students in Duval County and, he says, could do even more with the $100,000 in local project dollars.

State Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Democrat representing part of Duval, got Vision Christian Ministries money into the state budget for the program called “Duval Leaders of Tomorrow,” to help troubled students in so-called “alternative schools” get back into regular public schools. Groover said that, in the past, the ministry relied on contributions from parishioners to do that kind of work.

The $100,000 project – unlike many others that don’t involve competitive bidding – would provide a much bigger stream of dollars to help troubled youth.

“We work with them one on one — what caused them to come (from their regular school to an alternative schools) and how they fell through the cracks,” Groover says.

Unlike Rep. Smith, Daniels didn’t have a Republican partner to help push her pet project through. But she did side with Republicans when she voted yes for controversial legislation that will expand school vouchers in Florida, allowing students to attend private schools with public dollars.

Only a few Democrats voted for that bill, and the lengthy debate was testy on April 29.

That day, State Rep. Margaret Good, a Sarasota Democrat, sought to kill the new voucher program by way of an amendment. She said it was unconstitutional and public dollars shouldn’t be spent on private, religious schools.

What happened next was a lesson learned in how lawmakers have to be careful about losing their pet projects.

Republican state Rep. Chris Latvala, representing part of Pinellas and chair of a key appropriations subcommittee, looked at Good, telling her that, “In the budget that we will be passing later on this week (we) will include some (pet) projects from members of your caucus that go to religious institutions. Would you oppose me doing that in the future and taking those projects out?”

Good appeared surprised, and said, “I am not commenting on other member projects. I don’t see how that is germane to this amendment.”

Based on state budget records, Good got one project into the state budget of about a half dozen that she had pursued. It was related to the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota.

She got help from a prominent Republican who partnered with her to push the project: State Sen. Joe Gruters, who is chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

State Rep. Smith is open about his views on how member projects work.

“The member project in the budget is a way to muzzle Democrats from speaking out, for fear that their appropriation will be removed from the budget. That has worked.”

In pursuit of transparency in state government and finances, the budget of more than 400 pages does identify pet projects – but not always.

That includes the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute, a $12.4-million project which earlier had been pushed by Democratic State Sen. Janet Cruz, who represents part of Hillsborough. Final budget documents showed the project in the budget, but without a listed connection to any House or Senate member.

The same thing happened with the Florida Atlantic University Jupiter Research Building, an $11-million project that earlier had been pushed by Democratic State Sen. Bobby Powell, representing parts of Palm Beach County.

The political process around local projects raises questions about how much state money should be used for pet projects that could be financed by local governments.

After all, Floridians have statewide needs in health care, public education, transportation and the environment, and the state budget is meant to prioritize state policies and cater to all Floridians.

Still, lawmakers look to focus in on a specific project that they believe is worthwhile.

For example, two Republican lawmakers pushed through four different projects totaling close to $650,000 for a nonprofit private school that educates children with autism and learning disabilities.

It’s called the LiFT Academy, in the Tampa Bay community of Seminole. The school got help from lobbyists at the Corcoran & Johnston lobbying firm, including founding partner Michael Corcoran, who has a brother in a key state position: Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran.

Republican state Rep. James Grant, representing parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas, and Republican state Sen. Jeff Brandes, representing part of Pinellas, sponsored the projects.

In South Florida, $11.5-million finally got into the 2019-20 budget — to repair and replace elite university lab schools.

They are public K-12 schools but use a lottery method as part of the admissions process.  The K-8 school and a high school are on the Boca Raton campus of Florida Atlantic University. The facilities have problems ranging from leaking roofs and poor lighting, to limited physical education facilities, according to school officials.

The project was pushed by several lobbying firms as well as Democratic Sen. Lauren Book, representing part of Broward, and Republican Rep. Michael Caruso, representing part of Palm Beach county.

Ryan Britton, a university official and lobbyist for Florida Atlantic University, says the project has been a lengthy effort, and funds didn’t come during former Gov. Rick Scott’s administration .

Now, the $11.5-million, Britton says, will launch planning, engineering and initial construction. The project will need additional funding for several more years, but at least the 2019-20 appropriation is a beginning.

“So this year, we broke through,” Britton says, and he hopes Gov. DeSantis won’t veto the project.




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Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.