No amnesty for these turkeys

Published May 23, 2007

The near-record pork in the state budget passed by the Legislature as lawmakers accused cities and counties of rampant waste represents a rare political blend of schizophrenia and hypocrisy. Legislators who want to rein in local spending can't back away from the trough themselves. The budget analysis comes courtesy of Florida TaxWatch, which on Tuesday released its annual "Turkey List." These are the projects that are sneaked into the budget, in some cases even after the House and Senate have passed their own appropriations bills.

It turns out that 2007 was a particularly sneaky year. TaxWatch identified 507 turkeys totaling $267-million, the third longest list in the 24 years the group has kept tabs.

"The turkeys reveal the culture that political might makes right," said TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro. "The most influential members get what they want, whether it's meritorious or been properly reviewed."

Just ask House Speaker Marco Rubio, the chief critic of local government spending. In February, he wrote a memo warning that tight budget constraints could eliminate all "member projects." But TaxWatch identified 116 turkeys worth $49-million tied to Miami-Dade, Rubio's home county. And that list did not include an $800,000 line item under "legislative initiatives to reduce and prevent juvenile crime" that will pay for artificial turf on football fields operated by the South Florida Sports League. Rubio, a former league board member, plays adult flag football there.

For Rubio to cover his ballfield with state-financed artificial turf speaks to a certain schizophrenia in this year's pork. Many, if not most, of the projects that lawmakers tucked into the budget are aimed at helping their hometowns. There's the $2-million for a civic center in rural Wakulla, the $500,000 for a shooting range in Indian River, $1.3-million for a streetscape in Fort Lauderdale, $10,000 for the "purple heart" monument in Dunedin. In other words, lawmakers would hand out goodies to the same cities and counties that House Majority Leader Marty Bowen recently accused of "rampant waste we all know exists."

The duplicity, though, is the greater offense here. The same proposed 2007-08 budget that includes $267-million in turkeys also requires a $546-million increase in local property taxes for schools. As TaxWatch noted, eliminating the turkeys could have cut the state's required property tax increase in half. Isn't property tax reduction the top legislative priority?

Lawmakers head back to work next month in a session where they apparently plan to wag their fingers at cities and counties. Gov. Charlie Crist is in a position, with his veto pen, to at least wipe a little of the smugness off their faces.

Crist has until Friday to decide how much of the budget deserves his veto, and he has his own rhetoric to consider. He was reported Tuesday as telling West Palm Beach Mayor Lois Frankel she could begin to cut her budget by closing all seven of the city's dog parks. Fair enough. But what's his feeling about synthetic turf for Rubio's football adventures?

Lawmakers want to have it both ways, but Crist can end that game.