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In tight budget, 'turkeys' still grow

Despite budget cuts, Florida lawmakers propose spending billions on projects in their local districts.

By DIANE RADO and STEPHANIE SCRUGGS

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 13, 2001


TALLAHASSEE -- Grappling with the tightest budget year in a decade, lawmakers have been considering cuts that are bound to be politically explosive in a state with such a high concentration of seniors.

On the table in the state Senate: eliminating benefits for poor elderly people to get eyeglasses, hearing aids and dentures.

At the same time, lawmakers ever-mindful of re-election races next year are pushing to fund billions of projects to impress the folks back home.

The list of lawmakers' "community budget issues," a nice term for the pork barrel projects often called "turkeys," is astronomical this legislative session.

State senators are proposing $2.3-billion in community projects for the next budget year, including $850,000 for strawberry research in Dover, $3-million for a World Softball headquarters in Plant City, and $4-million for ferry service from John's Pass in Pinellas County to Key West.

Lawmakers in the state House have proposed spending even more: $5.3-billion for community projects in their local districts next budget year. The House lawmakers' money would go to everything from county fairgrounds to cultural and recreation programs, sewer projects, health facilities and social service programs.

For the sake of comparison, last year at this time House members proposed spending $3.4-billion on community projects.

The list of community projects has reached "unprecedented proportions" said Dominic Calabro, head of Florida TaxWatch, the watchdog group that identifies turkeys in the budget every year.

"Rather than have the discipline to limit the projects, they try to legitimize them" by putting them on lists reviewed by the Legislature.

It's only the second week of the 60-day legislative session, so the projects still have a long way to go to be included in the final version of the spending bill. Even then, the projects would have to face the scrutiny of Gov. Jeb Bush, who has slashed millions in local projects the past two years.

Last year, Bush vetoed $313-million from the budget lawmakers sent him. He vetoed the same amount in 1999, infuriating lawmakers.

This year's lists of projects give an inflated total, because more than one lawmaker may list the same project. In addition, some of the larger community projects are meant to send a political message.

For example, House Democratic Leader Lois Frankel has proposed a whopping $776.2-million of community projects. They actually represent Democrats' priorities in the House, she said, such as improving nursing homes, raising teacher salaries and helping low-income seniors pay for prescription drugs.

In light of the tight budget year, Frankel and other Democrats have been critical of a Republican plan to cut the intangibles tax on stocks and bonds. The lengthy list of community projects adds fuel to the fire.

"This is not the year that I think we can reasonably accommodate member projects, even though they may be worthwhile projects," Frankel said.

The lawmakers are making their local project requests despite a near-$1-billion shortfall in Florida's Medicaid budget and significantly less new revenue to spend than in the previous two years.

State Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Largo, who is struggling with education cuts as chairman of the Senate's education budget committee said he doubts there will be enough money to fund many of the community projects.

Sullivan is listed as the sponsor of the $4-million ferry service from the Tampa Bay area to Key West. He said he put the project forward at the request of the Pinellas legislative delegation, which divided up local projects and decided who would sponsor them in the Legislature.

In all, Sullivan proposed $14.5-million in community projects for next budget year, one of the lowest figures in the 40-member Senate. Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, proposed the most local projects: $207-million. He requested money for a number of projects that would help constituents in impoverished areas that he represents.

Lawmakers often defend their local projects and decry the term "turkey," because it implies the program is not worthwhile.

Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, did not apologize Monday for the $91-million in community projects that he proposed -- the 10th highest amount proposed in the Senate -- saying he represents one of the poorest areas in the nation. "A lot of people have needs," said Silver, who chairs the Senate's budget committee on health and human services programs that has been considering painful cuts.

Calabro, of Florida TaxWatch, said lawmakers may have been compelled to propose more community projects this year because a new budget approach by Bush made the governor's proposed budget in some cases more difficult to understand.

Worried that their pet projects weren't in the governor's budget -- which carries great weight with the Legislature -- lawmakers proposed them as separate community projects to be considered by fellow lawmakers.

Proposed projects

JIM KING, R-JACKSONVILLE

Senate majority leader

Total requests: $136-million

City of St. Augustine parking facility, $5-million

University of Florida Genetics Institute, $10-million

Florida Veterans Employment and Training programs, $16-million

SEN. RON SILVER, D-NORTH MIAMI BEACH

Chairman of subcommittee on health and human services, Senate Appropriations Committee

Total requests: $91-million

Empowerment Zone to stimulate economic development in Miami-Dade, $10-million

Regional Cultural Facility grant program, $10-million

SEN. LISA CARLTON, R-SARASOTA

Chairman Senate Finance and Taxation

Total requests: $36.9-million

Charlotte County Health Department building, $6.5-million

Red Tide research, $1-million

SEN. GINNY BROWN-WAITE, R-BROOKSVILLE

Senate president pro tempore

Total requests: $22.4-million

Hernando County health department in Spring Hill, $5.8-million

Florida Organics Recycling Center of Excellence, $1-million

Lake Panasoffkee restoration, $5-million

SEN. JACK LATVALA, R-PALM HARBOR

Chairman, Senate Banking and Insurance Committee

Total requests: $7.8-million

Florida Center for Teachers, $275,000

Dunedin Community Center, $1-million

SEN. JIM SEBESTA, R-ST. PETERSBURG

Chairman, Senate Transportation Committee

Total requests: $19.6-million

Space Experimental Research Laboratory, $16-million

REP. SANDRA MURMAN, R-TAMPA

House speaker pro tempore

Total requests: $76.2-million

Level 1 Trauma Centers, including Tampa General, $5-million

Port Redwing infrastructure improvements (Tampa Port Authority), 5-million

Healthy Families Florida program, $15.5-million

REP. LOIS FRANKEL, D-WEST PALM BEACH

House Democratic Leader

Total requests: $776.2-million

Prescription drug assistance for low-income elderly, $500-million

Nursing home quality improvement, $100-million

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