$267-million in state budget 'turkeys'

In a tight budget year and at a time when property taxpayers are demanding relief, it shows a "a lack of sensitivity" to the taxpayers' predicament, Tax Watch president said.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published May 22, 2007

TALLAHASSEE – In a tight budget year and at a time when property taxpayers are demanding relief, legislators loaded the state budget with $267.3-million in questionable local projects known as "turkeys, " Florida TaxWatch said Tuesday.

A fifth of the more than 500 projects would benefit Miami-Dade County, the home of House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has been a leading critic of what he considers excessive local government spending.

"It shows a lack of sensitivity to the taxpayers' predicament," TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said.

The annual TaxWatch turkey list traditionally closely mirrors the line-item vetoes of the governor, who has the last word on the state budget.

Tampa Bay projects on the list include $7.5-million in economic development money for Pasco County; $2-million for the Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens; $600,000 for a special needs emergency shelter in Brooksville; and $500,000 for restoration of Fort DeSoto Park.

TaxWatch is a non-profit group, supported in part by private corporations, that tracks legislative spending every year. This year's turkey list is the third-highest since the group began its annual "turkey watch" 24 years ago.

TaxWatch defines a turkey as a spending project that averted established review, was not recommended by a state agency, surfaced for the first time in the late-session conference committee stage, does not benefit the state as a whole or is steered to a specific group.

Calabro emphasized that TaxWatch was not passing judgment on the merit of the projects themselves – only the way they were created.

"There are some projects of great public benefit, which makes you wonder: Why did they get funded as an afterthought?" Calabro said.

TaxWatch said Gov. Charlie Crist has no choice but to veto all or most of the 507 projects on this year's list, to teach lawmakers a lesson in the need for accountability in the budget-making process.

"He has to," Calabro said. Otherwise, this year's $267.3-million could balloon to $400- or 500-million next year.

Crist has until Thursday to sign the budget and veto individual line-items where many of the so-called turkeys are found.

Lawmakers have said the first-year governor has given them little guidance on what he considers to be a waste of tax dollars.

The question is whether Crist will be as aggressive in using his veto pen as his predecessor, Jeb Bush, who alienated many lawmakers with his rigid criteria for projects.

"I think he's going to be more civil," Calabro said of Crist. "He'll do so without the same glee."

The "turkey" total is a tiny fraction of the $72-billion budget now on Crist's desk, but legislators have direct control over a small amount of spending.

The group produced a 10-page spreadsheet of fine print listing 507 questionable projects, including 116 benefiting Miami-Dade County, home of Rubio, R-West Miami, a self-described fiscal conservative who told lawmakers in February there was no money for projects in the budget.

But no other county came close to Miami-Dade's bounty of water projects, literacy programs, bike trails, museums and projects steered to specific vendors or non-profits.

"Political might does not make right," Calabro said.

Rubio defended the House's spending decisions as responsible, noting that $1.5-billion was set aside and the budget is balanced three years into the future.

"I think that's a good indicator of fiscal responsibility and a responsible budget, " Rubio said Monday.

TaxWatch did not call for a veto of one Miami-Dade project – $800,000 for synthetic football fields for a sports league in which Rubio played flag football – because the expense was recommended by the preliminary House and Senate budgets.

Rubio served on the group's board of directors, but said he did not request the money.

The complete TaxWatch report can be found at www.floridataxwatch.org.

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.