A dog park in Jacksonville, a fountain in Palm Beach and money to help people get to the planned 1,000-foot-tall SkyRise Miami were among $121 million in budget projects that Florida TaxWatch says Gov. Rick Scott needs to strike with his line-item veto.
In releasing its annual list of budget “turkeys” Friday, TaxWatch officials urged Scott to veto 107 projects from a 431-page, $77.1 billion fiscal plan that lawmakers approved early this month. The handful of projects that got budget earmarks in Flagler do not appear on the Turkey list.
The TaxWatch list includes one project, construction of a performing arts center at Pasco-Hernando State College worth $10 million, from House Speaker Will Weatherford’s district.
Another 10 projects, at a combined cost of nearly $6 million, are recommended to be slashed from the counties fully or partially included in the Panhandle district of Senate President Don Gaetz.
Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, offered a sharp rebuke to the list.
“Florida TaxWatch has once again shown,” Gaetz said in a release, “that it is possible to be absent all year long from any engagement in the budget process, do no research into the merits of any appropriation, utter not one word of testimony on any proposal or alternative and still convince well-meaning people to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep a well-paid staff employed to absolutely no positive effect other than to get mentioned in one news cycle.”
Scott has until June 4 to act on the budget, which will take effect with the start of the new fiscal year July 1.
Kurt Wenner, TaxWatch’s vice president for tax research, said the projects on the list aren’t being questioned on their merits, but rather for failing to go through the normal budget process.
“There were an awful lot of member projects in the budget this year,” Wenner said. “I think everybody knew there were going to be, there was more money. The Legislature did do a pretty good job of getting a lot of them in the budget early.”
Wenner said the budget would never get done if there wasn’t backroom dealing. But the group is opposed to new projects being introduced during those talks.
The business-backed organization uses two main criteria to select turkeys: first, whether the project was inserted into the budget during the final negotiations between the House and the Senate; and second, whether the spending was requested by a state agency.
That’s why Wenner said a $12 million gantry crane at Port Tampa Bay is on the list, but none of the $171.9 million allocated for projects related to the Everglades and the Indian River Lagoon got targeted. The Everglades and Indian River Lagoon projects are backed by Senate Appropriations Chairman and past TaxWatch critic Joe Negron, R-Stuart.
Scott has been touring the state pitching his desire to have the state spend $300 million on seaport improvements if given a second term.
Wenner said the crane would help the state, but is on the list because it was added during budget talks between the House and Senate.
“We think it has great economic development benefits,” Wenner said. “If there is something we think is valuable, we will keep it on the list, but we will let the governor know we think there is something valuable there.”
Other projects pitched for vetoes include $2.5 million for a Tarpon Springs Superfund site redevelopment; $5 million for a Miami-Dade College gymnasium; $2 million for Cocoa Beach seawall improvements; $3 million for the Mossy Head Industrial Park in Walton County; $123,000 for a Riverside Avondale Preservation dog park in Jacksonville; $150,000 for single-gender schools in Broward County; and $350,000 for the restoration of an Addison Mizner-designed fountain in Palm Beach.
Wenner said SkyRise Miami made the list because a $2 million line item for public-transportation improvements around the planned R-shaped, waterfront glass and steel tower wasn’t the initial intent of the House’s economic-development funding request.
However, Ron Book, who lobbied for SkyRise Miami, strongly disagreed, saying lawmakers always presented the funding as economic development and only altered how the project is described.
“To say there was a change would be fiction, it would be nothing but made-up bunk,” Book said.
Lawmakers included language in the budget that says the SkyRise Miami money is contingent upon developer Jeff Berkowitz showing that $400 million in private-sector funding will go to the project. Berkowitz has estimated the project at $430 million.
Last year, TaxWatch recommended $106 million in cuts through 107 separate line items. Scott vetoed 71 of the items, worth $71.1 million, as part of his $368 million in cuts from the budget.
–Jim Turner, News Service of Florida