Florida lawmakers' 'sprinkle fund'
The Legislature's top leaders are reserving increasingly larger chunks of state revenue for themselves to allocate.
For as long as the Florida Legislature has been developing and passing budgets, one of the perks of being Senate president or House Speaker has been the ability to hold back a bit of anticipated tax revenue for the leaders to allocate at the end of budget negotiations.
That kitty has several functions: Some legislators call it the “bill pot” because it can be used to fund initiatives created by laws passed late in the session. Others refer to it as the “leadership fund” or “bump fund” because the money isn’t spent until budget negotiations have “bumped” from rank-and-file lawmakers up to the leaders. More recently, some have taken to calling it the “sprinkle fund” — used to sprinkle one last helping of hometown projects into the budget in order to get a budget deal done. Much of the money, of course, typically flows to the leaders’ pet projects.
Historically, the legislative leadership has held back relatively modest amounts. Allan Bense (R-Panama City), who presided over the House during the 2005-06 sessions, recalls putting about $15 million into the bill pot. In Bense’s case, some of the money went for construction of a campus for his alma mater, Florida State University, in his hometown of Panama City.
And historically, the House and Senate leaders collaborated in divvying up the money and consulted on how it was to be spent. Deferential to each other’s wishes, the House Speaker and Senate president horse-traded spending while retaining veto power over each other’s projects.
Things have changed, however. A new approach took root under former House Speaker Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park) and former Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island), who presided over the 2011 and 2012 sessions.
Starting with Cannon and Haridopolos, the legislative leaders have been holding back increasingly larger sums. This year, House and Senate leaders held back some $300 million that they sprinkled across more than 190 projects and initiatives. (From 2005 to last year, the budget rose 25% while the money set aside in the sprinkle fund jumped 1,900%.)
Just four people decided how that money was allocated: Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) and Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran (R-Land O’ Lakes) in the House, and President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) and Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee (R-Brandon) in the Senate.
What’s more, the four simply split the $300 million in half between the House and Senate. Neither side had any kind of veto power over the other’s sprinkle list — the House leaders allocated their $150 million, and the Senate leaders decided how to spend their $150 million.
One beneficiary was Enterprise Florida, which got extra money at the very end of the budget process, despite widespread hostility toward the agency in the Florida Senate. The Senate had refused to go along with Gov. Rick Scott’s requests to give more money to the economic-development group. House leaders, who were Scott’s allies during the contentious health care debate that dominated this year’s session, decided to add $19.5 million for Enterprise Florida to the House’s sprinkle list. And the Senate couldn’t say no.
Former state Rep. Seth McKeel (R-Lakeland), who was appropriations chairman under Cannon’s successor, former Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel), says splitting the money in half is a way to speed up the final part of creating a budget. “That’s how you get out of town without five more days of fighting,” he says.
The changes, however, have concentrated even more power in the hands of the presiding officers — and shielded more of the budget process from the public.
The new way also has produced confusion. Via the sprinkle fund, the four leaders added projects that hadn’t appeared in earlier budget discussions. They also “topped off” some projects with extra money even though rank and- file lawmakers had agreed to lower amounts. (The sprinkle lists were subsequently shredded by Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed about $63 million from the Senate’s list and about $44 million from the House’s.)
In one case, Florida Gulf Coast University ended up getting $6.8 million to build an access road to its campus — even though the university had asked for, and needed, just $4 million. Two House members had worked to get funding for the project into different parts of the budget; nobody realized the project was over funded until the final lists were produced in public at that near-midnight meeting. At that point, it was too late to change anything. University officials had to scramble to get a letter to Scott promising not to spend more than $4 million on the project to prevent the governor from vetoing the money.
Some lawmakers — including both of the men who presided over the budget this year — say they intend to push for changes.
Lee, who was Senate president when Bense led the House in 2005 and 2006, says he thinks it is important that both the House and Senate agree to all projects rather than just splitting the bill pot in half and allowing each side to make what amount to “unicameral decisions.”
“Losing that check and balance can be dangerous,” he says. “I think leadership can achieve its objectives without going to such extremes.”
Corcoran, the House budget chair, says he thinks sprinkle money should be tied specifically to legislation moving through the process and not used for individual member projects. And he says the Legislature could impose a scoring system for member projects, in which, for instance, a project that has a local match gets a higher score than one that doesn’t or a state-owned facility gets more points than a facility owned by a local government or private entity.
Corcoran is slated to follow Crisafulli as House Speaker after the 2016 elections, putting him in a position to change things. While he won’t commit to smaller bill pots under his watch, he does say the money will be used to pay for things “reflective of the whole body making that decision” rather than leaving it up to a small group of individuals.