Jackson Lab funding glitch? State may need special session to fix wording in budget

— State government lawyers have identified a possible glitch with a budget document that was crafted this past spring to provide funding for the proposed Jackson Laboratory project in eastern Collier County.

It seems wording in the budget document to provide $50 million in first-year funding to the project doesn’t mesh with the federal stimulus package approved by Congress earlier this month, said Keith Arnold, a Tallahassee lobbyist for Collier County government.

That means attorneys for the governor’s office and state agencies are trying to clarify the issue but if they can’t, the conflict may get sent to the Legislative Budget Commission when it meets Sept. 15 to address an array of budgetary matters, Arnold said.

If the budgetary commission isn’t able to figure it out, or doesn’t have the legal authority to do so, the full state Legislature may have to take it up when and if a special session is convened to address the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and other issues, he said.

Some state lawmakers want another special session but others don’t.

“They haven’t called one in September,” Arnold said, adding that he doesn’t see it as being possible until after the November elections.

This past spring, state lawmakers approved the $50 million allocation, contingent on the stimulus coming through, to help bring the Maine-based Jackson to Collier. The Barron Collier Co. also agreed to donate 50 acres on Oil Well Road for the nonrofit genetics research institute. The proposal has been spearheaded by the Economic Development Council to start establishing a biomedical research park to create jobs and diversify the economy.

The plan is for the state’s $50 million to be beefed up by another $80 million in later years and Collier County would have to match the $130 million. That has generated considerable debate in the community about the county venturing into corporate welfare and risking a huge amount of taxpayer dollars on an endeavor that may not create the thousands of jobs that’s been pitched by consultants for the EDC.

Jackson isn’t the only special project that state lawmakers targeted to fund if another federal stimulus package got passed, which didn’t happen until a few weeks ago.

“There are at least two or three other projects that are in exactly the same boat,” Arnold said. “It is a legal question. I think the intent of most of the budget writing was pretty clear. The Legislature intended for all of them funded if Congress passed additional stimulus. All had similar language but not all the same.”

The Jackson budget document, in particular, talks about an Federal Medical Assistance Program extension but it also refers to the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, which was passed in 2009 and not the same thing that was approved by Congress a few weeks ago.

What Congress approved is paying a higher share of the cost of Medicaid, which is jointly funded with states, for another six months. That means states don’t have to spend as much money to supplement the insurance program for the poor and disabled and can use those dollars elsewhere.

There’s also an issue that the amount of stimulus to states got reduced in a compromise to get it passed. Instead of getting $1 billion as hoped this past spring, Florida is getting $600 million, he said.

That’s raising questions whether state agencies and projects, like Jackson, will have to accept a proportionate cut from their original budget allocation.

Commission Chairman Fred Coyle, who has been spearheading the Jackson project with EDC, said the language glitch is convoluted but he believes it will get fixed.

“Most people believe it was an unintended glitch and can be resolved,” Coyle said.

Coyle said he will not be going to Tallahassee to attend the meeting, if the matter doesn’t get resolved before, but Arnold would be there.

Members of the Joint Legislative Budget Commission include Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and House Rep. David Riveria, R-Miami, and others, Arnold said.

Connect with health-care reporter Liz Freeman at www.naplesnews.com/staff/liz_freeman

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