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Atwater Wants More Transparent Budget Process

Senate President Jeff Atwater wants lawmakers to spell out in state law a slower, more transparent process for how items get into the budget, in part in response to the scandal that brought down former House Speaker Ray Sansom.

In a wide ranging pre-session interview Tuesday with reporters from a couple different news organizations, including The News Service of Florida, Atwater said he goes into his last session in the Legislature hoping to leave it with a more deliberative and open process spelled out in state law, not just as a matter of custom.

“I'd like to ask the members to consider more time between seeing information and voting,” said Atwater, R-North Palm Beach.

It's particularly important when it comes to the budget – especially when the economy is tight – that items put into the spending plan be thoroughly vetted. Currently, there's a 72-hour cooling off period before a budget vote, but even that may not be enough, he suggested. And there are other parts of the process where amendments are added and voted on without proper deliberation.

Implicit in the suggestion is an acknowledgement that such transparency, despite the state's constitutionally-required Sunshine laws, hasn't been par for the course through the years – and Atwater agreed that the embarassing ouster of Sansom as speaker over a seemingly phantom budget item was a good example of what he is trying to fix.

“That can be the example,” said Atwater, who is running for chief financial officer.

Sansom came under fire last year for an item that made it into the budget when he was House appropriations chairman that steered millions to a hometown college, spending that later came to be heavily scrutinized when Sansom accepted an unadvertised job with the school. Amid that scrutiny, other lawmakers said they had no idea the line item was even included in the budget.

A grand jury that later looked at the situation found that the whole process of how the Legislature writes the budget, where one powerful budget chairman can often quietly insert an item that's not found until later and items can show up in conference committees that weren't in either original budget, seemed rife for corruption.

Sansom's case was hardly the first where things seemed to get put into the budget without much vetting. Several years ago, an item in budget proviso called for speed bumps to be removed from a section of Tallahassee roadway near the airport – something one particular lawmaker was later said to be responsible for. There are numerous other examples.

“If proviso language was not seen, not agreed on by the agency that would be affected, let's back it up,” Atwater said. He noted that he made a decree last year that the Senate would operate under such attempted transparency – and while he conceded there may have been some exceptions, he felt like it worked fairly well.

“Now, we've got to put this in writing,” Atwater said.

It's not clear how much enthusiasm there is in the House for a measure that would not only hold up spending to more scrutiny, but also could slow the process down. Atwater acknowledged that such a plan could delay passage of the budget – already frequently something that's finalized up against a clock that's running out at the end of session.

“It might establish a process where timeliness is more difficult,” Atwater said. “But more transparent...

“If it matters that much, let's discuss it in public,” Atwater said. “I would want every bit of the process discussed in public.”

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