By Jim Saunders
Health News Florida
With Florida struggling financially, a tax-watchdog group Monday called on Gov. Charlie Crist to veto $12.7 million in “turkey” projects that lawmakers stuffed into the health and human-services budget.
Florida TaxWatch released its annual list of budget turkeys — Tallahassee’s version of pork-barrel spending — as Crist faces a Friday deadline for issuing line-item vetoes. Counting all areas of the state budget, TaxWatch found nearly $60.6 million in turkeys in a year in which lawmakers had to cut funding for numerous programs.
“Even with the paucity of money, they still managed to somehow find money,” said Dominic Calabro, president of the non-profit group that has released annual turkey lists since the 1980s.
But Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Chairman Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, was angry that TaxWatch’s list included $8.5 million for a project that would allow Florida A&M University to start offering and other health-education programs in his Panhandle hometown.
Peaden said the project will address critical needs of improving access to health care for rural and minority residents. Peaden said it “doesn’t matter what TaxWatch says. These are real issues.”
“You have somebody like TaxWatch popping off their mouths about public policy, when they don’t know what good public policy is,” said Peaden, a retired physician.
The Florida A&M project is by far the most expensive project singled out by TaxWatch in the health and human-services portion of the budget. It ranked third in the overall budget, behind two $10 million items for transportation and road spending.
The other costliest health and human-services projects in the list were $1.7 million for construction of the Mildred Pepper Senior Center in Miami-Dade County; $1 million to provide dental and medical services to uninsured or underinsured people in the Lake Wales area; and $500,000 for a mobile dental unit for the AGAPE Community Health Center in Duval County.
Some of the projects can be clearly linked to House and Senate leaders who had power to add spending to the budget during the spring legislative session. As an example, Senate Ways and Means Chairman JD Alexander lives in the Lake Wales area.
The release of the annual list always angers some lawmakers who contend that their projects meet legitimate needs. But TaxWatch officials say they focus on the process that led to items getting into the budget — rather than passing judgment on the merits of each project.
TaxWatch looks at factors such as whether projects have been adequately reviewed and whether they benefit only limited special interests or areas of the state. That includes looking for projects added to the budget during late-session negotiations between House and Senate leaders.
The $60.6 million in projects is only a fraction of the overall $70.4 billion budget, which is slated to take effect with the July 1 start of the fiscal year. Also, it is a smaller total than turkey lists from most of the past decade — with the 2002 list reaching a high of $297 million.
But Calabro said the $60.6 million could have gone to other uses, such as hiring school teachers or preventing $10 million in cuts to the Healthy Families program, which provides services to pregnant women and mothers of newborns who are considered at risk of child abuse.
Calabro also said the 2009 turkey list totaled only $15 million, so the increase to $60.6 million “sends the wrong, wrong message.” He said he thinks Crist could veto even more projects than TaxWatch targeted. The complete TaxWatch list can be seen at http://floridataxwatch.org.
It remains unclear how Crist will view projects such as the $8.5 million in spending for the Florida A&M program in Crestview.
The Senate passed a budget proposal during the middle of session that included setting aside nearly $10.3 million and directing Florida A&M to spend the money “to train health care professionals committed to serving in rural or under-served areas of the state and to provide direct services to residents.”
But after late-session negotiations, the final budget included $8.5 million and a more-detailed explanation of the project. It called for using $7 million of the money to renovate a facility in Crestview and $1.5 million to pay for staff.
Kurt Wenner, director of tax research for TaxWatch, said the substantial changes during budget negotiations were a reason for including the project on the turkey list. Also, lawmakers funded the project through the Department of Health budget, which is a departure from the way university building projects are ordinarily prioritized through the education budget.
But Peaden defended the project and said health needs in rural areas are “overwhelming.” He also said it is a joint project with the city of Crestview, which donated an old factory building that would be renovated.
“They (TaxWatch officials) wouldn’t know the difference between a turkey, a quail or a guinea,” Peaden said.