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  1. Florida Politics

A parade of pork: Florida lawmakers seek $2.6 billion in hometown spending

Sen. Jack Latvala talks with son Rep. Chris Latvala, both of Clearwater, on the floor of the House in March 2016. Chris Latvala has filed 27 project this session.
Published Mar. 15, 2017

TALLAHASSEE

After years of secretly stashing money into budgets with little public scrutiny, state lawmakers are being forced to defend their requests for hometown projects in broad daylight.

In Florida's Capitol, that's called reform.

It's part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's agenda to drag discretionary pork-barrel spending out of the shadows and force every lawmaker to put their names on their projects.

But if the goal was to shame lawmakers into taming their appetites for spending, it hasn't happened.

Even in a year when the state has a tiny surplus and demands are as great as ever, the project wish lists, often referred to as pork or turkeys, remain massive, more than 1,200 in all, equal to 10 for every member of the House of Representatives.

They would cost $2.6 billion, more than the entire annual budget of the Florida prison system, the third-largest in the United States.

The bottom line number itself is something of a revelation. In past years, only a resourceful staffer would have taken the time to add up every request.

Lawmakers say it shows a growing need for services that the state and local governments can't or won't provide, for drug and alcohol abuse treatment, respite care for the elderly, the arts, roads, bridges, parks, drainage, sewer and wastewater improvements.

The three biggest projects in Tampa Bay are $15 million for deferred maintenance on aging buildings at Hillsborough Community College; $15 million for a new highway interchange at I-75 and Overpass Road in Pasco County; and $10 million to remove sediment and restore Lake Seminole in Pinellas.

Every session brings a parade of requests for money, many of them by vendors who rely on state grants to survive and who, as much as ever, hire lobbyists to help bring the money home. Many projects would benefit nonprofit groups.

The difference this year is that every request must be filed as a separate, stand-alone bill accompanied by a 20-question survey, including the size of a local funding match, whether the program has been documented by a study, and how much money is spent on services and salaries. Every request had to be filed by March 7, the first day of the session, and must be heard by a House committee.

One by one Tuesday, House members pitched 50 requests to a budget subcommittee for health care.

"I'm here to ask you for a new roof," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who's seeking a $790,000 appropriation to replace a 20-year-old roof at ARC Broward in Sunrise, which serves adults with developmental disabilities.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, wants to get $525,000 to help the city of Sunny Isles Beach design and obtain permits for a senior center.

Most requests were discussed in less than two minutes, and every one passed unanimously.

That doesn't mean they will make it into the House budget. Those decisions will still be influenced by favoritism and politics involving Corcoran; his chief budget-writer, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami; and the Senate leadership.

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, was the only panel member who questioned whether Florida taxpayers should have to pay for such purely parochial spending.

"It seems like a very local project," Pigman said of Geller's project in one of Miami-Dade's smallest cities, but one with expensive high-rise condos popular with wealthy investors.

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, filed 27 projects at a total cost of $47 million. The project that won a favorable subcommittee vote Tuesday would spend $686,000 to put solar energy panels on 18 group homes in Tampa Bay to reduce energy costs.

"I'm a fiscal conservative," Latvala said. "But when we can bring money back home, that's something I certainly want to do."

Latvala has an edge over a lot of his colleagues: His father, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is in charge of writing the budget in the Senate.

LobbyTools, the legislative research and bill tracking service, ranked House members based on how much money they're requesting.

Near the top of the list is Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican who represents five rural counties across the Panhandle.

His 45 projects, many in small towns bordering Alabama and Georgia that are struggling economically, would cost taxpayers $131.7 million.

"The objective is to make sure they have an opportunity to be scrutinized," Drake said. "I don't want to deny my constituents a budget item that would benefit my community."

The House member with the most expensive project list is Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, at $153 million. But most of that amount, $100.1 million, is for the state to make court-ordered payments to landowners whose trees were destroyed during the citrus canker outbreak.

Jenne, who's in his ninth year in the House in two tours of duty, has worked with Republicans behind the scenes for years to bring money to Broward.

"Now we actually have to do it in the light of day, and I've got no problem with that," Jenne said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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