TALLAHASSEE — It's turkey season in Florida's Capitol.
Even in a bleak budget year when lawmakers must cut spending by $1.4 billion and eliminate thousands of state jobs, they want to spend millions of tax dollars on hometown projects of their choosing.
Known as earmarks, pork, or, in the jargon of Tallahassee, "turkeys," the projects are controversial and as old as the Legislature itself. They often are championed by a single legislator with access to the public purse and parochially benefit a local area, not the state as a whole.
But good times or not, many legislators feel obligated to bring home the bacon to constituents as proof of their clout, which is why turkeys tend to proliferate in election years.
So even though state workers won't get a pay raise next year and their medical premiums will go up, senators want to spend $3.9 million for neighborhood improvement projects in Orlando, $1 million to promote a world class regatta in Sarasota, $500,000 for a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami and $100,000 for the Hialeah Chamber of Commerce.
In a year in which several state prisons will close due to a shortage of inmates, the Senate wants to spend $250,000 so that Flagler County can begin building a new 400-bed county jail.
Asked why the Senate budget is larded with a lot of pork for so-called member projects, Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said: "We have a lot of members."
Pork-barrel spending is out of control, said Sen. Steve Oelrich, an Alachua Republican, who cited it as a reason for voting against the entire $71 billion Senate budget Thursday.
"A million dollars for a world class international regatta sports center in Sarasota?" Oelrich told the Senate. "There are projects in here that I just don't think we can afford."
Oelrich, who plans to run for Congress next fall, likened the projects to the notorious Alaska "Bridge to Nowhere." He said local projects should be paid for with local taxes, but most senators voted for the budget, projects and all. Next week, senators and House members must agree on a spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
Some projects, like the regatta center in Sarasota, are in the state budget because Gov. Rick Scott vetoed them last year, when he slashed a record $615 million in legislative spending — to the delight of tea party activists.
Scott, who can veto line items in the budget, hinted that vetoes of projects may be coming again. "I want to make sure we fund the things that our citizens want us to fund," Scott said. "One thing I ask on a lot of projects is, are we getting a return? The citizens expect us to get a return on the money they spend."
If this year is like the past, some projects will vanish in the House-Senate budget talks, and others will magically appear for the first time.
Projects often have powerful benefactors. The $69 billion House budget includes $1 million for a boys and girls club in Lacoochee, a low-income community in the Pasco County district of Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the next House speaker.
Weatherford said the club can be called a member project, and it's not in the Senate budget, but private donations are being raised and the club will have literacy programs. "It will be a safe place to grow and learn," he said.
The House budget also has projects championed by its budget chief, Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, including $5 million for an emergency operations center in Glades County, $350,000 to improve the city wharf in LaBelle and $46,000 for the Captain Hendry House in LaBelle.
Grimsley and Alexander will be lead budget conferees.
"There have always been, and there probably always will be, projects of a regional or an issue-specific nature in the budget," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "It's the job of the conferees and the House and Senate to make sure they are projects we stand behind on a case-by-case basis."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.