Lawmakers doled out the largest number of budget “turkeys” since 2007 in the spending plan for the coming fiscal year, Florida TaxWatch said, even as the amount of money dedicated to the pet projects declined slightly from the current budget.
One of the items on the list–the only one from Flagler County–is a $250,000 state grant from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to help plan for new construction at the jail, or constructing an entirely new jail. Florida Tax Watch considers the money inappropriate, because that sort of project is “not usually funded by state.”
Flagler’s proposed expansion of the jail (or construction of a new jail) is at the heart of the county’s campaign for an extension of the half-cent sales tax that’s been on the books since 1990, and that expires this year. Palm Coast, which shares in the revenue from the sales tax, has been resisting the extension because it’s opposed to the county’s sharing formula, and because it wants the county to take ownership of its own taxing responsibilities. The FDLE grant is relatively small compared to the cost of a new jail.
Florida Tax Watch’s annual “Turkey Watch,” released Friday, identified 159 items in the state budget that TaxWatch said were inserted late in the process or seemed aimed at benefiting special interests. The total spending on the items came to $171 million. (See the list below.)
The organization said it was not recommending that Gov. Rick Scott veto 16 economic development projects totaling $21.3 million, instead urging “further review” of those items.
The 159 turkeys is the highest number since 2007, when lawmakers in better budget times tacked 505 of the projects onto the spending plan. Those projects would have cost $256 million had then-Gov. Charlie Crist not cut more than half of them.
Aside from the $203 million lawmakers approved last year, the $171 million this year would also be the highest since 2007. Analysts with TaxWatch attributed the increase in projects but the drop in dollars to a lack of large-scale construction proposals in the approximately $70 billion plan.
“There were a lot more kind of the traditional hometown member projects,” said Kurt Wenner, vice president of tax research for TaxWatch and leader of the turkey project.
About 84 of the projects were inserted during House-Senate negotiations to hammer out a final version of the spending plan — a relatively high number, Wenner said. Adding a project in the final stages of the budget process, when it gets less discussion, is a red flag for turkey hunters.
TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said the organization understood the impulse among lawmakers to make sure that their local area gets its fair share of the budget.
“But all too often we find that the parochial nature of that institution — it’s important to have it tempered, have it tempered with statesman-like conduct,” he said.
One item that was not in the turkey report was a proposal to accelerate the independence of the University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus. The new Florida Polytechnic University was a pet project of Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who has crusaded to make the campus its own institution.
Wenner said that the project was discussed at great length during the legislative session, avoiding the accusations of secrecy that often accompany turkeys. And he pointed out that the Legislature approved a bill as part of the budget process that would create the university.
At the same time, Calabro said, TaxWatch was hesitant about the idea.
“We just don’t generally like to add more universities,” he said.
–News Service of Florida and FlaglerLive