Even in lean times, Florida legislators make room for 'turkeys'

TALLAHASSEE — With a $6 billion budget deficit, lawmakers had to cut back on programs that helped Alzheimer's patients and foster kids — but they still managed to fund a few pet projects at universities and even nicotine patches for smokers trying to kick the habit.

The special spending items stick out in the 408 pages of next year's $66.5 billion proposed Florida budget in a year when rank-and-file legislators were told to not even try to insert hometown spending requests because there was no money.

Top legislators, however, slipped a few in for Florida International University and the University of South Florida. And they made sure to spend money in every section of the budget, so odd-sounding programs like "alligator marketing" get cash while senior-meal programs are cut.

The array of spending items is inevitable in a budget as large as Florida's. And it's nothing new that lawmakers try to bring more money back to their districts.

The Tallahassee nickname for hometown projects: "turkeys."

This year, there seem to be fewer turkeys than ever. And there's more public discussion over the budget than anyone in the Capitol seems to remember.

After a grand jury indicted then-House Speaker Ray Sansom over allegedly abusing the budget process, top lawmakers decided this year to have more public budget talks.

So, when Lake Wales Sen. J.D. Alexander wanted more money for the University of South Florida in Lakeland and Miami Rep. David Rivera sought more for FIU, the Republicans traded offers and counteroffers in public.

"We've done it all out in the open," said Alexander, who won $5 million more for USF while Rivera secured an additional $11 million for an FIU medical school.

Not every issue was agonized over. Alexander inserted $500,000 in the budget for Lake Wales charter schools with nary a peep. Nor was there any talk about the $250,000 Rivera inserted for the FIU Democracy Conference.

Senate President Jeff Atwater made sure the caretakers of a girl who had been horribly abused in state care received money. And House Speaker Larry Cretul helped maintain money for a University of Florida dental program that Miami Rep. Juan Zapata had once attempted to strike from the budget.

Democratic Sen. Nan Rich of Weston acknowledged that Republican legislative leaders were more open than ever. But she said there's not much to celebrate when they cut $1.6 million from a program helping kids age out of foster care. Legislators also trimmed a batch of programs helping seniors and Alzheimer's patients by $2.75 million.

"It's tough to explain those cuts when we arguably have the money," Rich said.

A few intriguing items:

• $400,000 to "prevent, combat, and publicize the dangers of unlicensed real estate activity in Florida." Indeed, "publicize" might be the key word here.

• $150,000 for alligator marketing.

• $2 million to make a task force that will "develop legislative recommendations relating to stormwater management system design in the state."

• $100,000 for racing animal medical research.

• $706,000 for a hospitality education program.

• $2 million for nicotine patches for smokers.

• $1.1 million for a compulsive gambling-treatment program.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Even in lean times, Florida legislators make room for 'turkeys' 05/06/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 6, 2009 11:00pm]

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