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With budget in hand, time to talk turkeys

It is full of pet projects that fit the ""turkey'' definition that Gov. Bush declared war on last year.

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- On an aluminum platform 5 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico, scientists are hoping to raise unshucked scallops to reseed depleted beds off Citrus County.

The odds are long: Creating a scallop-farming industry in the United States has proven nearly impossible because Americans aren't used to eating unshucked scallops, which have an unappealing orange and white gonad. The platform where the experiment is taking place took a year longer to build than scheduled, and its cost increased five-fold before it was finished.

Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, knows about the problems. She also knows that the project has already cost $231,000, most of it coming from federal grants. But her faith in the experiment remains so strong that she put $85,000 into next year's state budget to continue the research.

"We're not looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars," Argenziano explained. "If it doesn't turn out to be totally successful, well, it was a good try."

The scallop experiment is one of at least 685 local projects requested by lawmakers that made it into the $51-billion budget the Legislature passed this month. The projects total more than $559-million -- or more than half of the total increase in state spending on public education next year. Another way to contrast the spending: Lawmakers cut taxes by just more than $500-million this year.

Hundreds of these spending projects were never deemed a priority by the governor, the state agencies that will oversee them or special committees the governor and Legislature jointly set up earlier this year to review local projects. Lawmakers in the House won funding for 420 projects totaling nearly $269-million that fell outside those parameters, according to the House Fiscal Responsibility Council.

What that means is that Gov. Jeb Bush will be put to the test in deciding what to veto and keep.

Lawmakers stuffed $300,000 into the budget for a Broward County senior center and shuffleboard complex named after Fred Lippman, a former state lawmaker disgraced by a sexual harassment complaint. They set aside $50,000 for a tennis club in the South Florida town of Sunrise. The Suwannee Valley Youth Livestock Show won $25,000 to build a "swine pavilion" where kids can exhibit pigs.

And those are just the projects for which lawmakers actually filled out a formal request: There are scores of others that cannot be traced to any one lawmaker. In addition, Bush has already decided to sign off on several expensive projects such as two new law schools sought by black and Cuban lawmakers and a new $45-million medical school for House Speaker John Thrasher's alma mater, Florida State University.

Last year, Bush declared war on "budget turkeys" -- projects that benefit a special interest or a particular locale but do not serve the state as a whole. The first-term Republican governor angered lawmakers, who depend on pork-barrel projects to look good in the eyes of their constituents, by vetoing a whopping $313-million in projects.

Bush's current turkey-hunting season began when he officially received the state budget last week. He has until June 3 to decide what to keep or veto.

But this year, lawmakers thought they had a deal. Local projects recommended by a state agency, the governor or reviewed by the special committees were presumed to be veto-proof.

Lawmakers worked diligently to meet the criteria. For instance, Senate President Toni Jennings won the support of the Board of Regents for a new $15-million performing arts center in her hometown of Orlando, a project Bush vetoed last year. Power helped: Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala sat on one of the special committees that reviewed water projects and said he "made sure to steer my projects through."

But Bush's Budget Director Donna Arduin said the governor never cut any deals.

"I talked to anyone that would listen to me and told them that the governor never said if something is in an agency budget request it's okay," Arduin said. "Clearly, recommendations are important . . . but nothing is veto-proof."

While that stand gives the governor wiggle-room to veto projects that meet the criteria while keeping others that do not, it isn't sitting well with lawmakers. Rep. Ken Pruitt, the House's top budget writer, used the criteria to give lawmakers detailed instructions at the beginning of the session on how to veto-proof their projects.

"We were working with information that the governor publicly stated to us," the Port St. Lucie Republican said this week. "I'd hope that they follow through with that, otherwise there's going to be some upset legislators."

Even though hundreds of millions of dollars of projects were not competitively reviewed in the manner Pruitt prescribed, Bush has already indicated he does not expect his veto pen to get as much of a workout this year.

"We're very happy with the budget," Bush initially said after the Legislature adjourned May 5. "There's a lot less (turkeys) based on our initial analysis, and we've got fewer that did not go through a process."

Thrasher, who nicknamed Bush "Veto Corleone" after last year's budget trimming by the governor, agreed this year seemed better.

"He spent a lot of time talking to members about their projects, one on one," Thrasher said. "He won't be as Draconian as he was last year."

But Florida TaxWatch, a conservative think tank, identified $222-million in budget turkeys it feels should be vetoed, only slightly less than the $234-million it identified last year. The group calculates that this year's turkeys would cost each Florida household $36.

Indeed, the budget is stuffed full of projects that would seem to fit the definition of a "budget turkey" that Bush laid out during his first year: "Items that are not an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars because the need for, and the benefits of, such items are limited," in the governor's own words.

Take, for instance, the $200,000 Bush earmarked for a research study to eliminate "performance altering drugs" given to greyhounds and horses in the parimutuel gambling industry.

There's also money for museums galore, such as $1.1-million for the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, $75,000 for an Agriculture Heritage Museum in Escambia County and $30,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library in Miami. Parks, new bleachers for a rodeo and money to research raising Russian sturgeon in a captive environment all found places in the budget.

Some lawmakers put money into the budget for projects they know little about. When asked about the $6.3-million in projects he placed in the budget, Rep. Jim Fuller, R-Jacksonville, apologetically said he could not describe the purpose of several organizations he funded.

Others took pains to describe the projects in lofty terms. Sen. James Hargrett, D-Tampa, justified the $30,000 he designated for the city of Palmetto's 13th Annual Tomato Festival by submitting an application that said "the tomato has figured prominently in the city's history and economy for generations." Somewhat less reverently, the application added that "everyone has a plump, juicy time" at the festival.

To be sure, much of the money goes to projects like upgrading county health departments, cleaning up polluted lakes and to non-profit entities engaged in good works in communities across Florida. Groups that help troubled kids, kids with autism, drug addicts and victims of domestic violence all would get state money. Some may be tough to veto from an emotional standpoint, such as the $1-million to construct a headquarters for Special Olympics Florida.

But in some cases, the money directly benefits for-profit companies, such as the $720,000 that Tampa Republican Rep. Chris Hart put in the budget for Eclipse Energy Systems. The Tampa-based company has developed a special "state of the art window film" that saves on energy costs.

Hart sees nothing wrong in the state directly subsidizing the company's research and development efforts. He pointed out that it has already won federal money.

"This is jobs, jobs, jobs," he said.

It is also a project less likely to be vetoed than most -- it was approved by one of the special committees set up by Bush and the Legislature.

In some instances, lawmakers are accusing their colleagues of creating jobs for themselves with taxpayer money. For instance, the state budget contains $500,000 for a "Florida-Caribbean Basin & Florida-Africa" market expansion program. Much of the money will go to "enhance the Florida economy by increasing international trade between Florida and the nations of Africa" and to establish a "team Florida mission to South Africa."

Rep. Sally Heyman, D-North Miami Beach, said one of her Democratic colleagues who frequently votes with Republicans has made no secret of her desire to become an ambassador-of-sorts to Africa. Heyman said term-limited Rep. Beryl Roberts, D-Miami, "was overt in speaking about it."

"In my opinion, it's a bad thing to do to sponsor a bill to create a position for yourself to fill when you leave office," Heyman said.

Roberts' spokeswoman, Shelli Harrison, said Roberts is looking to the federal government for an ambassadorship and has not spoken to anyone in the governor's office about positions created in the budget. Harrison said Roberts, who was out of the country, did not say whether she would take such a position if offered.

Does politics play a role in who gets what in the Republican-controlled Legislature? Consider the following information about the requested local projects identified by the St. Petersburg Times:

In the House, nine of the top 10 money getters in the House were Republican. By contrast, seven of the bottom 10 lawmakers were Democrats. Dead last was Rep. Tony Hill, a Jacksonville Democrat who caused Bush serious embarrassment by staging a high-profile sit-in over the governor's plan to end affirmative action.

On the other hand, the lawmaker at the top of the pile is Lynn Haven Rep. Allan Bense, a rising star in the Republican party who is considered a future candidate for speaker of the House. He won more than $90-million for local projects, most of it for a major bridge project.

St. Petersburg Rep. Rudy Bradley, who last year switched parties to become the second black Republican lawmaker since Reconstruction, ranked fourth in bringing home the bacon. Pruitt, the powerful General Appropriations chairman, ranked second. And New Port Richey Rep. Heather Fiorentino, a Republican lawmaker who won her 1998 election by just 23 votes and is up for re-election this year, was in the top third.

In the Senate, there was less disparity between Republicans and Democrats. Seven of the top ten money-getters were Republican. But nine of the bottom 10 were also Republican.

Of course, a turkey is in the eye of the beholder, and the governor has to keep lawmakers on his side. Moreover, lawmakers use budgeting tricks: In some cases, to veto one local park, Bush would have to kill dozens. Other projects are tucked into the budget in such a way that an agency can decide to use the money elsewhere, saving Bush a veto.

But Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, said he hopes Bush will remain vigilant.

"A budget turkey does not necessarily mean that it's a waste of a project," Calabro said. "But the question you have to ask is this: Why should a parochial project be paid for by the involuntary taxation of some other Floridian who won't benefit?"

-- Computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg and Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

How we did the story

This St. Petersburg Times analysis was spearheaded by the work of computer-assisted reporting specialist Connie Humburg.

The newspaper began with a list of local project requests submitted by lawmakers and available online at www.leg.state.fl.us/. To determine which projects were funded, the paper interviewed lawmakers and reviewed information provided on the Web by the House and Senate, the original list of requested projects and the budget the Legislature passed this month.

Hiding local projects deep in the budget is something of a sport in Tallahassee, and the lists of Tampa Bay area projects to receive state funding may not be exhaustive. Indeed, the Times found numerous examples of local projects that could not be traced to any one lawmaker. Because no information was available about those projects, they were not used in calculating totals.

The Times ranked lawmakers according to the total amount of money they received for projects they requested. In some cases, several lawmakers got credit for the same project, although the project was only counted once for the purposes of calculating the total number and cost of local projects.

Projects that were not included in the budget but passed in substantive bills also are not considered potential budget turkeys and so are not included. For the same reason, road projects ranked as a state priority were not considered local projects.

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