TALLAHASSEE — In a bleak budget with more cuts to human services programs, state lawmakers are following a time-honored practice: stashing away tens of millions of dollars in hometown spending to appease constituents in an election year.
Many of the budget earmarks — nicknamed "turkeys" by some in Tallahassee — surfaced for the first time in the past few days and some didn't come up until almost midnight Monday in the final negotiating session. The budget landed on lawmakers' desks Tuesday afternoon in preparation for a Friday vote.
Consider the Mildred Pepper Senior Center in the Miami-Dade district of Rep. David Rivera, the House budget chief. For $1.7 million, seniors will enjoy "a domino room, a gymnasium, two classrooms, sewing room, arts and crafts room and dining and activities hall."
"I think that's relative," Rivera said of the spending decisions. "There has to be a balance between projects around the state as well as spending that has a statewide impact."
Other new projects include $1 million for a performing arts center in Lauderhill and another $1 million in economic development money to repave a two-lane road in East Hillsborough. A small airport project in Kissimmee would cost taxpayers $700,000. The town of Golden Beach, an affluent coastal enclave north of Miami where the per-capita income of $65,835 is nearly twice as high as the statewide average, would get $150,000 for emergency generators.
Florida International University in Miami gets $32.5 million for a regional health clinic, $3.5 million for a neuroscience center and $2 million for a Center for Ethics and Professionalism. All three projects reflect Rivera's status as the chief House budget writer while also running for a Miami-Dade congressional seat.
Gov. Charlie Crist has line-item veto power over spending projects, and has described last-minute projects as "suspicious." If Crist runs for the U.S. Senate as an independent as expected, he may cast a dubious eye on projects viewed as beneficial to his Republican rival, former House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has a teaching job at FIU and is an ally of Rivera's.
"I think it's better to have an opportunity to deliberate these things over time, frankly," Crist said. "To have projects come out at the end always makes you a little suspicious."
He added: "We'll be looking at all of those, very, very seriously."
Some legislators said the budget contains far fewer member projects than usual.
"I don't have no stinking local projects," said Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, who oversees spending for environmental programs. "We used to have water projects, which were great. All the members would bring home money for a local sewage system, or something like that. None of that. Nothing."
Some projects fell far short of the Legislature's vow of greater budget transparency.
A panel of budget conferees on transportation approved this project: "$700,000 shall be used to fund a transportation improvement project at an airport as defined in section 339.63(4), Florida Statutes," a reference to an integrated statewide transportation network, the Strategic Intermodal System.
"Where is this?" Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, asked at a public hearing.
"Kissimmee," someone answered.
The airport project's champion: Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, in line to become Senate president this fall.
"It was brought to me by the county of Osceola … as one of their priority items to try to bring in more commerce and trade for the county," Haridopolos said, adding that the county would have more specifics on the project.
One of the projects even has a name befitting the practice of earmarking: Turkey Creek Road in Hillsborough. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, sought money to upgrade a two-lane road leading to a Plant City industrial park. Smithfield Foods and a couple of other companies left, he said, taking more than 1,000 jobs with them.
"As we've tried to bring potential clients into that area, the road is a disaster," Glorioso said. "Although the facilities are okay, the entranceway is turning them off. If you drive down an old bumpy road that's hard to make turns off of, you look at yourself and say, 'Why do I want to put my company here?' "
Glorioso said the project went through the Governor's Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development.
"Everything I saw was economic development generators for different areas," Glorioso said. "I don't know if you want to call them member projects or not, I think they're just good projects."
Miami-Dade lawmakers steered several projects to benefit Hispanic causes: $650,000 for the Latin Chamber of Commerce; $500,000 for the Exponica International art festival in November; and $50,000 for the Greater Caribbean Chamber of Commerce.
Fasano himself secured $750,000 for a health clinic inside a Pasco County hurricane shelter that is named after him.
In Broward County, Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, sought $1 million toward a $13 million performing arts center in Lauderhill. Smith said the center would complement the Broward County Performing Arts Center and help redevelop a struggling area.
"This would be a smaller facility to attract smaller events and smaller plays," Smith said.
Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, said he didn't think it was possible to secure money for hometown projects because of the state's precarious finances. "I was trying to save programs that help people in my district," Gibbons said.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.