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    TaxWatch polishes image as government watchdog

    The group votes to stop accepting all government money in Florida to avoid any conflict of interest.

    By DIANE RADO

    © St. Petersburg Times, published December 20, 2000


    TALLAHASSEE -- Florida TaxWatch, the state's premier watchdog over state spending, has taken steps to avoid potential conflicts and repair its image.

    The board of the nonprofit organization, best known for its critique of wasteful projects in the state budget, voted earlier this month to stop accepting government money in Florida -- a practice frowned upon by groups that strive to maintain their independence.

    The new board policy, approved unanimously at TaxWatch's annual meeting in Jacksonville, states: "To avoid the slightest hint of a potential conflict of interest or even the appearance of a conflict of interest, effective immediately Florida TaxWatch will not directly or indirectly accept government funds to conduct research or to support its operations from the state and local governments in Florida that are within the purview of its Florida government watchdog role."

    TaxWatch still will do research work for state or local governments -- as long as those governments get private donations to cover the cost, said T. O'Neal Douglas, a retired insurance executive who is chairman of Florida TaxWatch.

    In addition, TaxWatch may accept money from state and local governments outside of Florida, the federal government, and foreign governments, subject to a case-by-case review by the organization's executive committee or board of trustees, Douglas said.

    TaxWatch came under criticism this summer, when the St. Petersburg Times reported that the organization had been quietly accepting state money for years -- even as it was developing a reputation as an independent voice on state spending.

    The group's annual news conferences on the state budget symbolized its watchdog role. TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro would stand next to a stuffed turkey and expose big spenders in the Legislature and their wasteful pet projects, or "turkeys."

    As it turned out, TaxWatch was accepting government money at the same time that it was criticizing government spending.

    The Times reported that the group got $436,000 from the state government over a four-year period beginning in July 1996, which included both direct and indirect money from state agencies for research work and other projects. For example, the state Lottery Department gave TaxWatch $115,000 in 1998 and 1999, but the money went through the lottery's private advertising firm so it didn't show up in state records.

    The practice came as a surprise even to some board members of TaxWatch, who told the Times they were unaware that the organization was accepting state money.

    The Times also reported that TaxWatch was selling its research services. For example, the group last year got a $75,000 no-bid contract from the city of Tallahassee and Leon County to study a 1-cent local sales tax that would expire without voter approval. TaxWatch's conclusion: The tax would generate tremendous economic benefits.

    At least 21 members of the TaxWatch board were present for the vote on the new policy on Dec. 6, according to chairman Douglas.

    Douglas always has expressed confidence in TaxWatch's work -- whether it was funded with government money or not.

    "It's the perception we're dealing with," Douglas said Tuesday. "We as an organization don't feel TaxWatch has done anything to have a conflict of interest."

    However, "We're a watchdog group, and a watchdog group can't afford to even have the smell test fail," Douglas said.

    Kenneth Plante, a former state senator and top aide to Gov. Jeb Bush, was one of the founders of TaxWatch who was so critical of the organization that he quit years ago.

    Tuesday, he praised TaxWatch's new policy on banning the acceptance of government money in Florida.

    "I think that's a very good step," Plante said. "They should not have been accepting state money. . . . Obviously this is the proper thing to do."

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