The Florida Budget Process: What a (Little) Difference 72 Hours Makes

The Florida Budget Process: What a (Little) Difference 72 Hours Makes

It’s all over but for the voting.

Florida’s three-day cooling off period before the budget can be adopted is one of those constitutional provisions that seems to enforce what most would call common sense behavior.

Of course one should read the budget before one votes for it (well, all right, at least read lots of it, and have staff read the rest). Of course there should be time for the press, various interest group representatives and lobbyists, and even ordinary citizens to read and weigh in before adoption.  Of course, if one found something egregious in the budget, one could seek to amend it on the floor . . .

Maybe not.

Article III section 19d of the Florida Constitution states, “All general appropriation bills shall be furnished to each member of the legislature, each member of the cabinet, the governor, and the chief justice of the supreme court at least seventy-two hours before final passage by either house of the legislature of the bill in the form that will be presented to the governor.”

If a general appropriation bill were to be amended on the floor, then the adopted bill wouldn’t have had the 72-hour review. We might want to allow for an exception for the chamber that amended it (after all, one hopes they knew what they were voting on) but that certainly wouldn’t be true of the other chamber, nor of the public.

So, for all practical purposes, a serious floor fight over some provision of the budget, if it led to an approved amendment, would cause a delay of at least 72 hours before final adoption.

Of course, if the budget had been submitted in proposed final form by, say, April 10, there would have been plenty of time for final battles on the floor, amendments, reconciliation between the two chambers, etc.

Of course.

But as with so many things, procedures create political opportunities. Legislators, like the rest of us, utilize these opportunities in their own interest and in the interest of those they seek to serve.

If waiting until 72 hours before the session ends protects the final work product from effective amendment, then those with the power of agenda control (who also have considerable power over the final budget product) will wait. And they do. Wouldn’t you?

If, as a practical matter, the budget isn’t going to be amended once it reaches the floor for final consideration, and if actually defeating the budget would lead (in this case) to a fiscal crisis or (in the normal case) to days being added to the session or a special session being called, it seems highly unlikely that any budget proposed would fail to secure majority support. If it was close, the majority party would enforce party discipline and it would pass anyway.

So it’s all a charade, right? Legislators don’t need to bother reading the budget, because whether they love it or hate it, it’s going to be adopted. They aren’t reading to make a decision . . . or, perhaps more accurately, many of them already know how they will vote, regardless of what else is in the budget.

Certain specific things in the budget matter to each member, different things for different members. Many of these are special projects that were added just before the budget was put to bed. As for the larger contours of the budget, that’s old news now.

If this sounds incredibly cynical, you misunderstand my point.

My point is that all of the drama is behind us. Legislators will diligently review the budget page by page, or seek out particular sections because of particular concerns, or find the project they care most about (if it is in there). There may, or may not, be impassioned speeches during floor debate. But all of that, quite literally, is just for show.

What IS tremendously important about this nifty little provision of our state constitution is the chilling effect it may have on truly egregious misappropriations.

You may laugh, thinking of some of the turkeys that have been in the budget. Fair enough.

But knowing that the press will pour over the budget, knowing that disgruntled legislators and lobbyists will pour over the budget, and knowing that members will have to vote for the budget under the cloud of whatever publicity might be generated by these pourings, it may be somewhat easier for leaders to reject members’ more absurd (or unethical) requests. “We can’t do that; can’t you see the headline? We can’t make the members vote for that.

It even may be that there is something of a chilling effect on leadership overreach as well. The same logic leaders could apply to individual members’ requests could be applied by the Senate leadership to the House or vice versa: “You’re going to try to make my members vote for that?”

Anyone who has followed our Legislature for enough years knows it’s not much of a limitation, to be sure. But it is something.

And in the game of budgetary politics, even a little leverage in the public interest is a good thing.