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Florida TaxWatch finds $147.5 million in ‘turkeys’ in state budget

Florida’s new $88.7 billion state budget contains 87 “turkeys” worth $147.5 million, Florida TaxWatch announced Wednesday, including nearly $120 million in transportation projects slipped in by state legislators without formal evaluation.

That helped starve arts spending. The Department of State had ranked 489 cultural, museum, and other arts projects worth $41.6 million, but the Legislature appropriated only $2.6 million — 6 percent of the ask, TaxWatch said.

TaxWatch defines “turkeys” as “usually local member projects, placed in the final appropriations bill without being scrutinized and subjected to the budget committee process, or that circumvented established grant and other selection processes.”

The projects themselves aren’t necessarily bad, the organization said in its 2018 Budget Turkey Watch Report.

Still, “member projects are going to inhibit our capacity to meet some of the core functions—like K-12 education, higher education, early learning, social services and the like—as we have a financial outlook that Speaker (Richard) Corcoran has pointed out properly is challenging,” TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro said.

Gov. Rick Scott signed the appropriations act a mere two days after the Legislature sent it to him, so TaxWatch didn’t have time to identify prospective line-item vetoes beforehand. The budget takes effect July 1.

Procedural rules in the House — requiring each member project to be introduced as individual bills and approval by budget subcommittees — added transparency to the process “but certainly didn’t limit them,” research vice president Kurt Wenner said during a conference call with reporters.

House members filed 1,314 member projects — 11 per member — totaling $2.3 billion, or $19 million per member. Senators filed 1,453 projects worth $2.7 billion — 36, worth $66 million, each.

House subcommittee votes on these measures “are simply pro forma events, with little or no debate or discussion of any bill,” Wenner said. “The result is that this budget contains 517 member projects worth more than $560 million. This brings the two-year total since the rules were adopted to more than 1,200 member projects worth $1.2 billion.”

Still, TaxWatch urged that the member project rules be made permanent and that projects be subjected to a competitive selection process.

The organization singled out the budget for economic development for special criticism.

“This line item has become a catch-all for all sorts of projects, many of which have a tenuous connection to economic development,” Wenner said. “Many projects are funded here instead of in other areas of the budget which fund similar areas of the budget which fund similar projects, some of which have competitive review processes.”

State economists project revenue shortfalls of $1.1 billion and $1.6 billion during the next two years. The state’s contingency fund could fall to its lowest level since 2010, Wenner said.

“In this environment, the prudence of funding so many local member projects at the expense of core statewide functions is questionable,” he said.

Written By

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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