Tallahassee-based think tank Florida TaxWatch released its budget turkey report, showing nearly $600 million in projects and spending the group believes should get additional scrutiny by Gov. Ron DeSantis before he uncaps his veto pen and takes action on the budget (SB 2500).
According to the report, there were $598.7 million in projects that either were inserted into the budget late in negotiations between the House and Senate, bypassed existing grant processes, could be duplicative, taken from trust funds not dedicated to that project’s purpose or tied to a bill that didn’t pass.
“While this year’s state budget overall is very responsive and helpful to taxpayers, Florida’s budget surplus is shrinking, and the state’s exorbitant revenue growth is expected to slow considerably in the near future,” TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro said in a released statement.
“It is essential to our continued success that Gov. DeSantis and legislative leaders remain responsible with taxpayer dollars, ensuring that all state budget projects are funded with a transparent, coordinated and statewide vision.”
The $598.7 million total, though, is a reflection of the surge in revenues brought by a buoyant economic rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the high inflation that boosted sales taxes. The total represents just 0.5% of the $117 billion spending plan passed by the Legislature, but is still more than the last three years of TaxWatch budget turkeys combined.
TaxWatch isn’t explicitly recommending DeSantis veto the projects and the report states it isn’t a reflection of their worthiness, but the group warned that the hike in member projects comes at a cost to other statewide programs.
“When it comes to the state budget, Budget Turkeys pose a significant concern for taxpayers, and Florida TaxWatch also finds the steady increase in member projects, or budget earmarks for local spending, particularly alarming this year,” TaxWatch Senior Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner said in a released statement.
“These projects are funded at the expense of statewide priorities, core functions of government, and an appropriate level of accountability the people of Florida expect from those they elected to represent them in Tallahassee.”
There are more than 1,540 local member projects in the budget worth $3.2 billion. That’s the highest ever total, and an increase from the $2.8 billion in the current year’s budget.
There are also $53.3 million in projects dropped during negotiations with the House and Senate that were later added back in the budget as part of the “sprinkle list,” a $670 million batch of projects the chambers added in the final round of spending plan talks.
University buildings were some of the most expensive projects. The Legislature funded 18 capital projects on top of the 21 listed on the Board of Governors’ priority list. Out of those, 14 were for the University of Florida (UF) and Florida State University. The largest project is $75 million for UF’s Health and Financial Tech Graduate Education Center in Jacksonville.
Other large projects maneuvered around normal grant procedures. For instance, there’s $25 million in the budget for beach restoration at Ponte Vedra Beach, which evaded the normal beach renourishment program grants for local governments established by the state, as well as the $350 million Hurricane recovery Grant Program the Legislature set up for areas affected by hurricanes Ian and Nicole. Moreover, the TaxWatch report states the Ponte Vedra project was vetoed in 2021, then approved last year, but the application form last year stated it wouldn’t ask for more money from the state.
The budget and related bills haven’t been formally sent to DeSantis for his signature yet, but the spending plan is for the fiscal year that starts July 1, so he is likely to act within the next few weeks.