TALLAHASSEE — Confronting their tightest budget year in decades, Florida legislators squandered relatively few tax dollars on hometown projects known as turkeys, according to a statewide research group.
In its annual "turkey watch" report, Florida TaxWatch cited 10 projects worth $15 million that should be vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist — the fewest such projects in the last 15 years that TaxWatch has been combing state budgets for questionable spending. The group reported $110 million in turkeys last year and $256 million the year before that.
Nearly all of this year's turkeys are in Miami-Dade and the Tampa Bay area. Among the turkeys cited by TaxWatch:
• $8 million for a program to help counties and school districts such as Pasco build roads near schools.
• $3 million to retrofit traffic signals so they are less vulnerable to hurricanes.
• $125,000 for the Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.
• $300,000 for the Hillsborough County Association for Retarded Citizens.
Others on TaxWatch's list were $1 million for the South Florida Intermodal Logistics Center; $1 million for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis; $1 million for Miami-Dade Diabetes Research Institute; $250,000 for Goodwill Industries of South Florida, $200,000 for the South Florida Charter Autism School; and $100,000 for a task force on African-American history.
Money was so scarce that the Legislature prohibited members from submitting requests for projects to be funded, a system known as CBIR, for community budget issue requests.
TaxWatch lists spending items as turkeys if the Legislature did not follow its budget rules, failed to provide for public review or steered money to a single recipient without competition.
TaxWatch defines a turkey as a project that surfaces for the first time in the budget conference committee stage near the end of the session. The group cited the April report by a Leon County grand jury that indicted ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom and former Northwest Florida State College president Bob Richburg and harshly criticized the secretive nature of last-minute budget deals.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who oversees transportation spending in the Senate, fired back at TaxWatch, and said the $8 million for school road construction was part of the Senate budget, not inserted at session's end. "That's an absolute lie," Fasano said.
Kurt Wenner's group acknowledged a spreadsheet error but said the project is still a turkey because it was never part of the state Transportation Department's work program.
"They're going to have to take that money from another project," Wenner said.
Fasano also disagreed with pinning the turkey label on a $3 million program to retrofit traffic signals in the Miami and Tampa Bay area so they are less vulnerable to hurricanes. He said that was discussed in his committee and seemed like a good idea because past storms have disabled red lights. "It just created havoc," Fasano said.
Several Miami-Dade projects landed on the TaxWatch list because they were added in conference. That was the case in a $1 million appropriation for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, which is affiliated with the University of Miami.
"Curing paralysis is something every citizen in Florida should support," Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, one of two House budget chairmen, said when told the appropriation made the list. "The center has made great strides."
Lobbyist Ron Book said money for the paralysis center and diabetes research has been included in past budgets. And this year, he added, there was open discussion about using some proceeds from a new cigarette tax to continue the funding.
"I am really mystified by this," Book said.
Crist will sign the $66.5 billion budget today in Tallahassee. Because vetoing any project usually alienates its supporters, and because Crist is running for the U.S. Senate in 2010, he is expected to wield his veto pen carefully.
Asked if he agreed that there are turkeys in the budget, Crist said: "There may be a few. We'll have to decide."