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Turkeys survive budget crunch

Many member projects are able to keep their funding while education and health care programs take cuts to plug the deficit.

By ALISA ULFERTS

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 8, 2001


Many member projects are able to keep their funding while education and health care programs take cuts to plug the deficit.

TALLAHASSEE -- To state lawmakers, it's the little things that count.

Like a tomato research facility in Senate President John McKay's home county. Or a senior citizens center backed by state Rep. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. Or the $3-million lawmakers put aside earlier for a monument to themselves -- the Museum of Governance and Political History.

Yet while slashing some $639-million from education -- part of $1.3-billion in cuts in the last special session on the budget -- lawmakers shielded millions in hometown projects that they funded earlier this year.

"Legislators are loathe to give up that which they identify with their own district," said Dominic Calabro, president of Florida TaxWatch, a Tallahassee-based watchdog group.

They already had lost the $290-million in projects that Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed this spring, well before anyone knew the state would face a $1.3-billion deficit. As for the projects that survived, some of that money had already been spent. And to suggest that legislators should sacrifice district projects is to change the way things are done in Tallahassee, lawmakers said.

House Majority Leader Jerry Maygarden, R-Pensacola, said member projects are nickel-and-dime items compared to the rest of the budget.

"A member project is $100,000. It's spent the first week of the new year. What we can retrieve, we do," Maygarden said.

Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, said member projects represent the only real way for lawmakers and their constituents to shape the way the state spends money.

"There are some member bills that are not in departments' (budgets), and if members don't have a way to get their bills and their proposals to the Legislature, then you don't have a true representative form of government," Melvin said.

"And if you've got to kiss the governor's a-- or some secretary's butt in order to get your bill in, then the Legislature has no power whatsoever," Melvin added.

Still, the juxtaposition of local projects versus millions in cuts affecting students gave fodder for Democrats, who suggested the state could save up to $50-million by shelving them and using the money for education.

"We didn't see any member turkey projects put on the table for consideration," Rep. Susan Bucher, D-Lantana, complained Thursday from the floor of the House chamber.

Instead, lawmakers slashed the amount of money they give to school districts across the state each year. Millions more were taken from health care programs for the poor and elderly to plug the deficit.

Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, said it's misleading to suggest that the elimination of member projects could have averted any education cuts. Some member projects are paid for with restricted trust funds and lawmakers can't simply shift those dollar to another area like education.

"You can make that claim, but . . . it's more rhetoric than anything else," Sullivan said.

Nonetheless, Pasco County will keep the $2.5-million lawmakers gave it in May to buy a group of small utility companies in that county. Florida Taxwatch identified that item as a turkey earlier this year.

A tomato research facility in Bradenton, part of McKay's district, survived the budget cuts. Compensation for homeowners who lose citrus trees to canker, a pet project of House budget chief Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, kept $17-million, even though the Senate wanted to cut the program. The $250,000 Fasano put in the budget for a new senior citizens center in Hudson also survived.

Fasano said he monitored final budget negotiations at the Capitol all last weekend to guard that money.

"I don't normally do that, but I wanted to ensure that Pasco County was held harmless," Fasano said.

Lawmakers also saved the $1.2-million for nonunion teachers' liability insurance that Taxwatch identified as a turkey because no one in the Senate wanted to put it in the original budget.

At the same time, lawmakers didn't restrict themselves simply to cutting big-ticket items. Smaller programs got nicked, too, like the $548 lawmakers cut from public broadcasting in Tampa, which wasn't labeled a turkey. The Florida Folk Festival lost two staff positions and $39,000.

Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, said lawmakers began looking at member projects to cut during their first special session to fix the budget in October.

But Fiorentino said lawmakers later were told not to bother with those items because they had "met the governor's smell test," meaning Bush hadn't vetoed them in the spring.

Bush has vetoed a total of $916-million -- projects he said either did not get an adequate review or had no statewide benefit -- in the past three years.

Bush spokeswoman Elizabeth Hirst said Bush overall was pleased with the budget cuts lawmakers offered for his signature and was reviewing the details.

- Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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