Savings of more than $8.8 million at the Department of Environmental Protection has resulted in more than $570,000 in bonuses for agency employees -- and questions about whether the state's environmental watchdog is doing its job. The Legislative Budget Commission, a group of lawmakers charged with making changes to the state budget while the Legislature is out of session, approved a plan to award a total of $571,961 to 269 employees for their job performance. The extra checks would range from slightly less than $1,000 to about $5,000, officials said.
But the criteria for those bonuses, which include speeding up final decisions on whether to approve permit applications, raised concerns from at least one lawmaker on the budget panel.
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said he was beginning to worry about a series of changes to the state's environmental laws approved by the GOP-controlled Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott in recent years -- and how those changes might interact with rewards for speeding up permitting.
"Coupled with that record, the governor's record, which as far as I'm concerned is probably the worst record of any governor in modern Florida history concerning the environment ... maybe we can put this off and bring it back in September, where we build a different type of bonus structure that isn't linked necessarily to the speed of approval or denial of applications," Pafford said.
In comments after the meeting, Pafford stressed that he was worried about the combination of the bonus plan with Scott's record, which included signing a bill that shortened from 90 days to 60 days the amount of time DEP has to review a permit.
"I don't know if it would be that big of a deal if the governor's history on the environment hadn't been so atrocious," he said.
But other lawmakers and an agency official pushed back. Jeff Littlejohn, deputy secretary for regulatory programs at DEP, said the object was to get an answer to applicants more quickly -- regardless of whether the answer is yes or no.
"And so we've established a number of procedural changes within the department, none of them involving reductions in any of our stringent permitting standards," Littlejohn said.
Littlejohn told reporters after the meeting that the bonuses weren't confined to workers involved in issuing permits, but would also go to some of those involved in plans to restore impaired waters or employees who enforce existing permits. He said about a quarter of those receiving the rewards were supervisors.
Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, said it was "disrespectful" to suggest that employees might not be careful with the permits in order to get a bonus, and pointed out that none of the workers who might get a pay bump knew about the proposal before it became public Monday.
"I think that alone would say that there was no bonus incentive in the minds of these employees as they were improving the application process and the review of the permit process, at all," he said.
The proposal passed on a voice vote, but Pafford appeared to be the only vote against it.
The panel also approved three other budget amendments dealing with unclaimed property, the Department of Transportation and the Southwood Shared Resource Center.