Budget negotiations should be more open, Senate President Jeff Atwater said this morning.
Atwater said that the Senate rules governing which talks should be public and when that should happen might need to be changed to at least give the appearance of openness.
“It’s necessary,” the North Palm Beach Republican told reporters after a briefing with the Senate Democratic caucus. “It’s important for us to be as open as we can in this process.”
Atwater held a meeting with Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, Sen. Mike Haridopolos and Senate Democratic Leader Al Lawson this weekend inside the Capitol.
Meetings between three or more senators are required to be noticed and open to the public. The Capitol was locked over the weekend.
Atwater said the meeting was unplanned and the group happened to be in the Capitol at the same time and that he ran into Lawson after the Democrat grabbed some ice cream in the Senate member lounge.
Budget leaders have yet to order a public conference committee to begin hashing out their differences.
But throughout the week, House and Senate leaders have traded written budget offers dealing with “allocations,” or how much revenue they will have to spend. The back-and-forth proposals have included high-level proposals in which the House agreed to a cigarette tax, a measure which was never heard in committee.
The longer the behind-closed-doors negotiations drag on, the more questions are being raised about the lack of transparency in crafting the state’s $65 billion budget.
A grand jury last week condemned the budgetary process, saying it was not open enough and gave powerful lawmakers the ability to sneak items into the budget with little or no oversight. That grand jury indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom for putting money for an airport hangar into the budget during a private meeting with his Senate counterpart when he was the House budget chairman.
“Part of the concerns that have been raised is that people think we’re running a parallel side-by-side track, that I might just be having conversations on allocations when someone else is actually getting into specific line items and trading bills.
That’s not going on. The longer that thins has gone on the greater that perception may be created that people think that’s actually taking place and it’s not,” Atwater said.
“If it would be helpful that the allocation process could be more open I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said.
He said that his conversations with House Speaker Larry Cretul about the cigarette tax were not “in any way some kind of mysterious kind of conversation.”
“I think everyone in Florida knows we’ve been discussing the tobacco surcharge,” Atwater said.