Friday, November 18, 2005
A Bush 'secret' exposed
A dispute over funding for the state Department of Juvenile Justice showed what one lawmaker called 'a dirty little secret' in how state agency budgets are controlled by the governor's office.
BY CAROL MARBIN MILLER
An angry meeting in Miami between state legislators and juvenile justice officials has exposed publicly what for years has been an open secret in the state capital: Despite a state law to the contrary, Gov. Jeb Bush's administration handcuffs state agencies' requests for money from lawmakers.
The funding dispute arose during a bitter exchange Wednesday between lawmakers and officials of the state Department of Juvenile Justice. The legislators have questioned over the past three years why DJJ guards are poorly trained, don't have enough radios, and why surveillance equipment designed to protect both guards and children often doesn't work.
At Wednesday's hearing, lawmakers grilled DJJ officials about why they haven't sought the money to resolve the problems.
That's when Randy Ball, an aide in the governor's office, came to DJJ's defense, telling lawmakers that neither they nor DJJ Secretary Anthony Schembri had the right to meddle in the agency's spending plan.
Schembri ''is limited in his legislative budget request to what the governor says he can put in it,'' said Ball, Bush's criminal justice policy chief. ``His hands are tied.''
''We told him he could not request additional training dollars yet,'' Ball added. ``He tried, and it's not his fault he failed.''
Ball's comments came only moments after Schembri, who inherited a department in turmoil last year, acknowledged to lawmakers that agency critics's complaints are accurate: Correctional officers at DJJ's lockups were undertrained.
''If I have ever seen a department that needed training, it's this department,'' Schembri said. ``This department desperately needs training.''
Rep. Dan Gelber, a Miami Beach Democrat and frequent agency critic, called the revelation that Bush was censoring his agency heads' budget requests ``a dirty little secret.''
'What's the line from Casablanca? `I'm shocked to hear that gambling is going on here!' That's almost how I felt,'' Gelber said. ''The legislative branch is supposed to be doing this'' oversight, he said, adding that lawmakers in recent years had been ``a little more subservient than they ought to be.''
Rep. Sandra Adams, an Oviedo Republican and former Orange County Sheriff's deputy, said she, too, was surprised by Ball's comments.
But, she added, she left Wednesday's hearing uncertain of whether the agency was poorly funded or just poorly managed.
''We look to agencies to come to us and let us know what they need to properly fund the different issues they have,'' she said. ``We haven't been asked for funds. We can't fund it if they don't come to us and tell us there's a need.''
A spokesman for the governor contradicted Ball's account, saying that all agency heads follow the law, which says state agencies' budget requests are to be ``based on the agency's independent judgment of its needs.''
''The governor has always encouraged his agency heads to use fiscal discipline,'' said spokesman Russell Schweiss. 'He relies upon them to determine their agencies' needs and priorities. The governor's office has always conducted the legislative budget request process based upon the laws which guide these procedures.''
The law on the books comes from a time when Democrats controlled both the governor's mansion and the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers generally asserted more control over budget issues than they have since Bush came to office in 1999.
It has long been suspected in the Capitol that Bush's agency heads have submitted budget requests that won't conflict with the governor's own budget recommendations given to legislators just before the start ot the annual legislative session.
The issue of DJJ's funding first came up Wednesday after Janet Graddy, a Tampa-area detention officer who says she was fired after complaining about working conditions, told lawmakers that children were in peril in the state's lockups because most officers are poorly trained.
''That's why you will continue to have kids assaulted, and continue to have kids abused,'' Graddy said. ``Training is a joke.''
''What you are saying is that you were not trained. You were just put on the floor with the kids,'' said Adams.
Deidre Zackery, a current officer at the Miami juvenile lockup, told the panel there were not nearly enough radios to go around, and, on some shifts, most of the radios are out of commission being recharged.
''That's a safety and security issue,'' Zackery said. ``It's something we deal with, day in and day out, the lack of equipment to do our jobs.''
``It's a hazardous job. It's not a baby- sitting service, because in Miami-Dade County, we deal with the worst of the worst.''
The question of which government branch was setting policy came up again when lawmakers complained that Bush had vetoed a $2.7 million request to pay for electronic monitoring devices and probation officers so that some delinquent children can await trial on home detention, rather than in often-crowded detention centers.
Black lawmakers have viewed the home detention program as a means of reducing the number of black children locked up throughout the state. Among 10- to 17-year-olds, black children are 22 percent of the population -- but 38 percent of the youths in secure detention.
Ball told the committees, however, that the governor believes it is the responsibility of local governments to pay for juvenile detention initiatives -- not the state.
''That's why it was vetoed, and it will be vetoed again if it comes back,'' he said.
''There is an over-representation of minority kids who don't need to be there,'' said Rep. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat. '
Herald staff writer Gary Fineout contributed to this report.