In lean year, turkeys stuff budget
By ALISA ULFERTS and ANITA KUMAR
TALLAHASSEE -- Taped to Senate Majority Leader Jim King's office wall is a sign for those who want a piece of the state budget pie: "ATTENTION!!! TO THOSE SEEKING STATE FUNDING: If your project or program is not ALREADY FUNDED, this is NOT the year!"
Senators are proposing $1.56-billion in pet projects for their districts. House members, who outnumber their Senate colleagues by 3-1, showed a little more restraint. They want just $1.51-billion.
All this just one month after they cut $1-billion from the budget -- largely from education and social service programs -- to keep state government from running in the red.
Few expect these legislative wish lists to be fulfilled.
"Dream on," said Dominic Calabro, director of the non-profit watchdog group Florida Taxwatch. His organization releases a list of so-called budget "turkeys" every year.
"No. 1, most of it will not get in the budget. No. 2, the governor is going to put a great emphasis on building reserves," Calabro said.
Republican Reps. Jerry Melvin and Donald Brown want $850,000 for a softball complex in Fort Walton Beach. Sen. Durell Peadon, R-Crestview, put in for $2-million for equestrian facilities in Escambia County. And Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, wants $275,000 to analyze the garbage generated at Florida prisons.
It's only the first week of the 60-day legislative session, so these projects have a long way to be included in the final version of the spending bill. Even then, they would have to face the scrutiny of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has slashed close to $1-billion in local projects the past three years.
And he's not expected to waver from that path this year, even though governors are tempted to be generous with pet projects when they face re-election.
"The governor's been a man of his word the last three sessions," said Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst, referring to Bush's past promises to cut fat from the budget. Given the tough economic picture, Hist said she doesn't expect that to change.
Last year, lawmakers proposed a record amount of pet projects, with the Senate asking for $2.3-billion and the House seeking $5.3-billion.
This year's total is inflated because more than one lawmaker may list the same project. Also, some of the larger projects are meant to send a political message or are programs that affect residents statewide.
One example is Sen. Buddy Dyer, D-Orlando, who requested almost $45-million to reduce class size and increase teacher pay in Orange County schools. Other lawmakers, Republican and Democrat alike, also requested money for school programs.
House Majority Leader Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, said this year's totals were about what he expected.
"I just asked them to forgo any spending projects or bills that they could put off for a year," Maygarden said. "I think they took that to heart."
But not necessarily kindly. Rep. Sandy Murman, the Tampa Republican who oversaw the House plan to cut social service spending last month, said it's the job of lawmakers to provide for their districts.
"I take issue to someone telling me to cut back on projects that I put in. That's our job to represent our community."
Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, said he suggested lawmakers offer no community projects this year, but the idea was rejected.
Henriquez said he did cut down the number of projects he requested. He wants $500,000 for the Town 'N Country Center, $1-million for Tampa-Hillsborough Urban League and $5-million for an electric streetcar extension in Tampa.
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From the Times state desk
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