tampabay.com

Group: $267-million going to 'turkeys'

Florida TaxWatch unveils its list of dubious local projects.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 23, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- In a year when property taxpayers are demanding relief, legislators loaded the state budget with $267-million in dubious local projects, Florida TaxWatch said Tuesday.

A fifth of the more than 500 targeted projects, called "turkeys," would benefit Miami-Dade, the home of House Speaker Marco Rubio, who has been a critic of what he calls excessive spending by cities and counties.

"It shows a lack of sensitivity to the taxpayers' predicament," said TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro, who noted the money could have been spent to offset half of a $545-million property tax increase for schools ordered by lawmakers.

Another TaxWatch target was Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who used his status as a Senate budget chairman to sock away $7.5-million for Pasco County economic development, $750, 000 for a New Port Richey hurricane shelter and $50, 000 for a Pasco summer camp for kids with development disabilities.

All are "turkeys," TaxWatch said.

"I suggest that TaxWatch go read the state Constitution," said Fasano, noting that the Legislature has the power to appropriate state money. "TaxWatch is, I don't want to say useless, but we don't take that much notice of them any more."

TaxWatch, a nonprofit group supported in part by corporations, 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.

Major Tampa Bay projects on the TaxWatch list include $2-million for the Pinellas Association for Retarded Citizens; $1-million for Hillsborough courthouse improvements; $600,000 for a special needs emergency shelter in Brooksville; and $500,000 for restoration of Fort DeSoto Park.

Calabro emphasized that TaxWatch was not passing judgment on the merits of the projects themselves.

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

The annual TaxWatch turkey list often mirrors the line-item vetoes of the governor. Gov. Charlie Crist will issue his first budget and veto message Thursday.

TaxWatch said Crist has no choice but to veto all or most of the 507 projects on this year's list, to remind lawmakers of the need for accountability in the budget process.

"He has to," Calabro said. If not, this year's $267-million could balloon to $500-million next year, he said.

One item Crist already says he won't heed TaxWatch's advice on is spending $100,000 to begin testing some high school athletes for steroids. TaxWatch has it on the list, but Crist supports the program.

"I don't think that steroid testing is necessarily a turkey," Crist said.

Crist can veto budget line-items where many of the so-called turkeys are. Lawmakers have said the new governor gave them little guidance on what he considers to be a waste of public money.

TaxWatch listed 507 questionable projects, including 116 benefiting Miami-Dade County, home of Rubio, a self-described fiscal conservative who had said there was no money for projects.

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

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Fast Facts: Tampa Bay area projects

Florida TaxWatch's list of "turkeys" included some Tampa Bay area projects, including:

Pinellas

Hillsborough

Pasco

Hernando

Source: Florida TaxWatch

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Read the entire TaxWatch report at www.floridataxwatch.org.