After fall budget cuts, county delegation wary of legislative wish list
By Jaime Levy
As the state legislature prepares for an issue-packed session starting Jan. 22, Miami-Dade County is reviewing and revising its list of requests - currently a five-page document that county staffers say is never really final.
Topping county government's list of critical issues are topics ranging from the empowerment zone to windstorm insurance. And the critical issues are only one page of the working document. The total package asks for more than $5.5 billion in funds for transportation, environmental resource management programs, human services projects and land acquisition, to name a few of the requested outlays.
After two fall special sessions resulted in more than $1 billion in budget cuts, officials know the county's requests will not all be met. Sen. Kendrick Meek, head of Miami-Dade's delegation, said they never are.
"I've never been involved in the legislature where they said, we've got enough money to give you one-fourth or one-half of your needs," Sen. Meek said. "We're going to see a point of, Miami-Dade County, what do you really need?"
But even within the critical issues, there is some degree of prioritization, said Juliana Walsh, director of intergovernmental affairs for the county. She highlighted transportation, juvenile justice and the empowerment zone as "pretty good bets.
"I go in with a very optimistic mood," she said. "We try to achieve the most we can for the county. We all know it's a very tough time for the legislature because of the economic situation - they're so short on revenue.
"We're all realistic but not pessimistic."
Realistically, said Rep. Carlos Lacasa, chair of the appropriations committee, the county should brace itself for non-recurring funding.
"Things with a fixed capital outlay have a much better probability of success than the things with year-to-year expenditures," he said. "I don't have the money on a recurring basis - I have a lot more non-recurring dollars. But there's not going to be a whole lot, because there's not a whole lot. And that's not posturing on my part."
For the empowerment zone, Rep. Lacasa said, that will most likely mean a one-time, $5 million grant - a gesture that Sen. Meek said would be fundamental this year.
"Getting Miami-Dade back to work is one of the major issues facing us - making sure businesses are able to rehire people that were laid off," Sen. Meek said. "The state made a commitment that it would give between $50 million and $100 million in resources to leverage private investment and local government investment. To date, it has only fulfilled $3.2 million of that $50 million commitment. Having the empowerment zone receive those dollars would help promote business within it."
Although Sen. Meek said the Miami-Dade delegation will advocate the county's push for empowerment zone funds, they have not yet voted on the topic. In fact, the delegation has only voted on one of the county's critical issues: making sure windstorm insurance rates remain affordable.
"We know the price of insurance is just getting totally out of hand," Sen. Meek said. "The folks living east of the highway are paying outlandish prices."
Although the county's legislative package now lists 10 critical issues, Commissioner Dorrin Rolle, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, is sponsoring a resolution to re-evaluate the top issues listed.
"Whereas substantial cuts were made by the Florida Legislature during the special session as a result of lost revenue due to the economic downturn... and whereas Miami-Dade County has filled the void in funding cuts... to keep programs in place, this board amends the state legislative package... so as to place highest priority on renewing state funding of such programs," the resolution, slated for a Jan. 29 meeting, reads.
"It's hard to set priorities on something right now. All are priorities," Sen. Meek said. "The county is trying to follow the bouncing ball."