Despite all the laws that pass each year, and the multitude of press conferences announcing the signing of this or that bill, the only constitutionally mandated job the Legislature has each year is the creation of a state budget.
Although the final dollar amount won’t be finalized until the end of session, the fiscal year 2012-13 budget will be in the neighborhood of $71 million dollars. This is a total of general revenue and trust fund dollars. That is a lot of money, probably more than the budget of some small countries!
The state budget, when signed into law by the governor, will have been the product of hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of work. That work will have taken place in committee hearings and at the desks of dedicated staff. The budget will have gone through several iterations until the final product is presented to the governor for signature.
In the beginning…the presiding officers of the respective chambers of the legislature create budget or appropriations committees which handle various areas of state government.
Although the specifics of the committee structure may change under each presiding officer’s tenure, the basic concepts remain the same. An overall appropriation committee oversees the construction of the entire budget. Under that committee is a group of smaller or sub-committee committees that are each tasked to create the budget for a given area of state government (i.e. criminal justice & the court system, education, heath care & social services, and so on).
The smaller budget committees begin meeting well before the legislative session starts. The committees listen to presentations given by state agencies that have budgets falling under the purview of the respective body. The committee also considers the governor’s budget recommendations when they are delivered.
The committee hears the reports of projects conducted since the end of the last session about issues of importance. For example, the higher education appropriation committee may hear a report about the pros and cons of raising college and university tuition. The smaller committees also hear pieces of legislation, filed by members or other standing committees, to determine whether or not they have a fiscal impact and whether or not the state can absorb that impact. The larger budget or appropriation committee tends to be the final arbiter on whether a bill, which has a fiscal impact, moves to the floor of the House or Senate for a floor vote.
There are two basic approaches to proposing the final state budget. One approach is to have the smaller budget committees present their products to the full legislative body for potential amendments and vote on the floor, followed by a subsequent merging into one package. Another approach is for the larger appropriations committee to take the budgets created by the smaller committees and collate them into one large package. During every step of the way members of the committee, or any senator on the floor, can offer amendments to the budget.
This process plays out in both chambers at roughly the same time. Once the House and Senate have completed their own visions for state spending, a budget conference is convened. The presiding officers of both chambers appoint members to sit on the budget conference. Each chamber is represented by the respective chair of the overall budget committee. The House and Senate alternate “hosting” the conference each year.
Budget differences are first dealt with between the two chambers at the subcommittee level. Those issues that are not agreed to are ‘bumped up” to the overall budget chairs. Any issues they can’t resolve end up on the desk of the presiding officers.
Once the differences between the two sides are hammered out a conference report is created. A budget conference report can only be voted up or down. Rules prevent the amending of budget conference reports.
The Florida Constitution requires that the final state budget cannot be voted on until 72 hours has lapsed from the moment it was delivered to the members. It was not that long ago that a hard copy of the budget had to be placed on each member’s desk to start that clock. While hard copies are still delivered, the age of information has allowed the budget to become available in electronic format the moment it is finalized. Once the 72-hour clock has run out the budget is available for a vote. More often than not this time frame expires on the final day of session. The budget is frequently one of the final pieces of legislation to be passed before the session ends.
The budget, like any other piece of legislation, must be signed or vetoed by the governor. In Florida the governor has line-item veto authority and may "strike-out" portions of the budget that he/she does not like. This practice usually removes special projects and budget items frequently known as “turkeys.” In the past, some governors have been known to veto hundreds of millions of dollars in appropriations in any given year. Once the governor signs the budget it becomes law and takes effect at the start of the next fiscal year.
I welcome your questions about the legislative process. Please feel free to leave your questions in the comment section, or e-mail me directly, and I will answer them in an upcoming post.
Tallahassee and Back: Thoughts and Observations About Laws that Impact You is an ongoing blog by State Sen. Mike Fasano's chief legislative aide. You can e-mail him at GIORDANO.GREGORY.S11@flsenate.gov.