Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Florida TaxWatch 'turkey' hunt targets Tampa Bay projects

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida TaxWatch released its annual list of budget "turkeys" on Friday, flagging $120 million in spending the group says was included by lawmakers without the proper public vetting, including large projects in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Hillsborough County had 12 projects dubbed turkeys, including $12 million for a large crane at the Port of Tampa Bay, $5 million for a new building at the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine, $3 million for the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach and $2.5 million for the Museum of Science and Industry.

Pinellas had eight projects identified. Among them: $2.5 million for a dredging and wharf stabilization project in Tarpon Springs, $500,000 for a Tarpon Springs performing arts center and $500,000 for improvements at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater.

Pasco only had one project on the list, but it was a big one: $10 million for the construction of a performing arts center at Pasco-Hernando State College.

Overall, the self-appointed watchdog identified 107 projects in next year's $77.1 billion budget that account for a minuscule portion of overall proposed state spending — about one-quarter of 1 percent. More than 30 percent of the money targeted comes from projects slated for Tampa Bay.

"We're talking about a significant amount of money," said Robert Weissert, TaxWatch's chief research officer and general counsel. It's a case of "government reaching into people's pockets and taking out that money, and public budgeting is a trust and it's a process that must not only be transparent and accountable but held to the highest standards."

As it does every year, the group timed the release of the report to the governor's review of the budget, which lawmakers passed on May 3. Gov. Rick Scott was sent the budget Tuesday and has until June 4 to veto any of its 4,000 line items.

"We now call upon the governor to exercise his constitutional authority and responsibility of the line-item veto and to scrutinize carefully" this report, Weissert said.

Much of the list identifies low-hanging fruit that make inviting veto targets anyway. For instance, this year the group identified a $123,000 dog park in an affluent neighborhood in Jacksonville, $350,000 for a fountain in wealthy Palm Beach and $3 million for a dormant industrial park in Walton County that Scott vetoed last year.

Last year, Scott vetoed 71 of the 107 projects the group identified, nixing $71.1 million in spending. In 2012, he vetoed 97 of the group's 159 so-called turkeys, which eliminated $63 million. In his first year in office, 2011, Scott vetoed 83 percent of the group's turkeys, which totaled about $181 million.

Florida TaxWatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan "research institute" founded in 1979 by a group of former Florida lawmakers and business owners who wanted to better control government spending. The group started its turkey list in 1986. The projects identified aren't questioned on their merit or value, Weissert said, but in how they are included in the budget.

About 80 percent of turkeys weren't included in either the House or Senate preliminary budgets. Instead, these projects were included in the proposed budget during conferences between the two chambers, when more than a $1 billion in spending was added with no clear paper trail.

"A budget conference should be used to compromise differences in funding levels, on funding something that was in one budget but not the other," said Kurt Wenner, the group's vice president of tax research. "It should not be used to introduce brand-new programs, particularly ones that go to a private entity or a narrow part of the state."

But Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a longtime critic of TaxWatch, scoffed at that criterion for a turkey.

He said lawmakers have a constitutional responsibility to include projects in the conferences.

"The turkey list has become a meaningless springtime ritual that's as annoying as the pollen in Tallahassee," Negron said. "There's no rhyme or reason to what they included on the list."

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