For the past three decades, Florida TaxWatch has been a self-appointed fiscal watchdog, blowing the whistle on what it considers wasteful pork-barrel spending by the Legislature.
Any day now, TaxWatch will release its annual list of questionable "turkeys" in the 2013-14 budget that awaits Gov. Rick Scott's signature. You can bet that more than a few will be from Tampa Bay.
But TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro sounded Monday like a man who went hunting for turkeys and didn't find as many as he'd hoped.
"We think they did a very good job overall, but there are some things we've got some questions about," he said.
By Calabro's admission, TaxWatch's review is imperfect and subjective, and a lot of people don't like TaxWatch, which is backed by business interests. But other than the Capitol press, nobody else goes through the more than 400-page budget, line by line, to look for questionable spending.
This is a year of abundant new money, enough that lawmakers are able to sock away $2.8 billion in emergency cash reserves and still find hundreds of millions of dollars for hometown projects.
To Sen. Joe Negron, who co-wrote the new $74.5 billion budget, TaxWatch's annual turkey shoot is "hackneyed" and a "media gimmick" that has outlived its usefulness.
Negron is so tired of TaxWatch that he called out the group by name in the recent session, challenging the criteria TaxWatch uses to red-flag what it sees as suspect spending.
What ticks off Negron, R-Stuart, is that TaxWatch calls turkeys spending items that surfaced for the first time in the budget conference committee stage, when decisions are made by a handful of lawmakers late in the session and often late at night or on weekends.
Calabro said a spending item that appears for the first time at the last minute is a "big, big red flag" that should attract Scott's veto pen. "How can we hold it accountable?"
Calabro said a project that may make TaxWatch's list benefits a group on whose board he sits (he wouldn't identify the group).
Negron will remind anyone within earshot that the Legislature has the constitutional responsibility to appropriate money.
"We're the closest to the people and we have an obligation to defend our projects," Negron said.
On the next-to-last day of the session, Negron urged senators to push back against a perception that the budget contains wasteful pork. To make his point, he cited two big drainage projects in the impoverished city of Riviera Beach in Palm Beach County.
Negron also disagrees with TaxWatch that a project is suspect if it's not recommended by an agency. Bureaucrats do not deserve a "presumption of correctness" that's denied to elected legislators, he argues.
"State agencies have statewide constitutional and statutory authority to prioritize the needs of the people of Florida," Calabro said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.