In the middle of trying to solve the state’s nearly $4 billion budget deficit, members of the House Finance Committee say they were surprised to find $288 million in a fund they thought was empty.

“There were supplemental amendments presented to the Legislature by the administration and that’s when we first learned that there was this potential of $288 million in the SBR (statutory budget reserve),” Pete Ecklund, chief of staff to Rep. Mark Neuman, told Finance members.

Rep. Lynn Gattis called it money found in the couch cushions, and questioned whether the situation would damage public opinion of the process.

“We’re cutting people left and right. I’m taking huge hits on what we’re doing for the vulnerable and we just found $288 million in the couch cushions?” Gattis said. “I mean whether it’s my fault, your fault, or [Legislative] Finance’s fault, how do the people back home even trust us anymore?”

While recognizing the available funds, House members debated how to spend them. Neuman introduced an amendment to use $30 million of the money to fund a pilot program to develop additional substance abuse services. Rep. Lance Pruitt called the idea a shell game: moving money from a past year’s budget to make cuts appear larger.

“So when we talk about how much we spent last year, you will need to add $30 million to it because we have just, with this passing, we will have decided that we were gonna spend that $30 million dollars,” Pruitt said, adding later that the public shouldn’t feel in any way, shape or form that lawmakers are trying to do something they don’t understand.

“I think we should be straight,” Pruitt said.

Minority member Rep. Les Gara agreed with Pruitt, saying, “We’ll have to sort out the legality of this later on.”

The House Finance Committee passed the amendment to appropriate $30 million for the program.

According to Legislative Finance Director David Teal, there is “absolutely no legal problem” with using the money from a prior year’s budget for a future project.

“That has been done in every single budget that I’ve worked on,” said Teal. “We do it, every other state does it, it’s very common in the budget process.”

The rest of the $288 million dollars was included in the public education fund, under the committee’s version of the budget. It will be presented on the House floor Wednesday.