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    A Times Editorial

    TaxWatch off course

    The leaders of the government watchdog group would be wise to seriously re-evaluate the organization's current practice of accepting funds from the state.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published August 27, 2000

    For years, Florida TaxWatch has cultivated a reputation of strict independence from the state government upon whose fiscal affairs it often casts a baleful eye. Typically, its 1998 annual report described itself as "a private, nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution supported entirely by voluntary, tax-deductible member contributions and philanthropic funding grants."

    Except for the word "entirely," the 1999 report read the same.

    That subtle deletion fell far short of fairly alerting the public and the political establishment to the reality, as reported by Times staff writer Diane Rado this month, that TaxWatch has been accepting significant funds from the state. They total at least $436,000 over the past four years. That's not small change. By way of comparison, it's roughly equal to the value of TaxWatch's new headquarters in a splendidly restored historic church within a short walk of the Capitol, or to a little more than two years' worth of TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro's salary.

    TaxWatch should have perceived, as perhaps it does now, that the money was not worth the resulting damage to the organization's credibility. For TaxWatch to be a truly independent authority on the budget, it cannot have any stake, direct or indirect, in that budget. If the governor is to consult TaxWatch's celebrated "turkey" list in deciding what special projects to veto, he shouldn't have to wonder whether any that were left off the list happen to have money for TaxWatch concealed within them.

    One of the funding mechanisms was particularly questionable. The Florida Lottery subsidized TaxWatch's annual Davis Productivity Awards, which honor state employees whose suggestions have saved money, by routing payments through the lottery's advertising agency. That kept TaxWatch's role out of the state comptroller's sight and off his records. It wasn't a line item in the budget, either.

    On other occasions, TaxWatch has performed consulting services as a subcontractor to government or private groups that received legislative appropriations for research. If the grantees knew that they would be passing along some of the money to TaxWatch, few if any legislators did. As Calabro defends the practice, the projects were all meritorious as opposed to those that earned the dubious distinction of making his turkey list. Let him try convincing those whose projects got the ax.

    Though Calabro insists that the government money "has not affected the value, quality, integrity or credibility of the research," he concedes that it could be hard to persuade the public of that. He assures that the organization's leadership will be giving serious thought to the issue.

    "Perception has its place," he said last week. "For those who don't know the integrity and charter of the institution or its people, then perception takes on a greater role."

    But the matter is about independence as well as perception. Any nonprofit organization that takes government money is potentially susceptible to government pressure. This is a bearable risk for those organizations that deliver specific educational or human services. But when the organization's core function is to monitor the government itself, a financial relationship is inherently wrong. As unthinkable as it would be for Common Cause to solicit, much less accept, money from the Legislature, so should it be for TaxWatch.

    It would behoove TaxWatch's directors and executive committee to seriously re-evaluate the organization's present course. If it cannot navigate strictly on the strength of philanthropic grants and on the dues that its business members are willing to pay, then the time has come to trim sail. Otherwise, it goes in harm's way.

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