With budget surplus for projects, it's game on for politicians


Legislative turkeys or needed community projects?

With a budget surplus, lawmakers in Tallahassee are looking at spending a little more freely this year with local projects. Critics says these projects or programs are a waste of taxpayer dollars.

• Miami Design District, infrastructure replacement/improvements: $1 million

• Bay of Pigs Museum: $900,000

• Coral Gables Museum: $200,000

• Military Museum of South Florida: $500,000

• North Bay Village, John F. Kennedy Causeway: $125,000

• Miami Science Museum: $100,000

• Hialeah Junior Fire Academy: $20,000

• The Seed School of Miami: $375,000

• City of Hialeah Gardens Greenhouse: $1 million

• University of Miami, Institute for Cuban American Studies: $350,000

• University of Miami, Launch Pad (Small business incubator): $500,000

• La Liga Contra El Cancer: $210,000

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

The room was packed last Thursday with lobbyists and agency representatives when House Speaker Will Weatherford spoke with lawmakers before negotiations began on next year’s $74 billion budget.

“As I walked into the room and took a good look around, what’s abundantly clear is that there appears to be a budget surplus this year,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. “That’s a good thing. We haven’t seen that in a long time.”

Everyone laughed, including the lawmakers who jammed the stage. But everyone got Weatherford’s point: After six years of anemic budgets, next year’s spending plan is healthy enough to pursue money for projects back home.

Game on.

For the Miami-Dade delegation, that’s a good thing. It’s better organized than most other counties, with a funded position that oversees what local lawmakers are doing. Other counties, like Hillsborough and Pinellas, slashed that position years ago.

Among the delegation’s top priorities: $7.5 million for the senior centers known as comedores; $1.1 million for Farm Share, a Florida City nonprofit that collects food from farms and wholesalers to feed the hungry; and $1 million for La Liga Contra El Cancer, or the League Against Cancer.

The delegation also hopes to win $900,000 to build a library in Hialeah Gardens honoring Brigade 2506, the band of exiles who attempted to overthrow dictator Cuban Fidel Castro at the Bay of Pigs, and $750,000 for a new military museum.

“If it doesn’t go to our community, it’s going to going somewhere else,” said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, the Hialeah Republican who chairs the Miami-Dade delegation. “These are the things that are important to our constituents. If we lose out on those dollars, we aren’t doing our job.”

Broward lawmakers also have a wish list, which includes $35 million for Port Everglades and millions for water and wastewater projects.

“We’re focusing on infrastructure,” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee. “We have an aging underground. We’ve got to start doing things to deal with the salt water intrusion and aging infrastructure.”

Smaller projects include $500,000 to develop a transportation hub at State Road 7 and Oakland Park Boulevard in Broward County; $500,000 for the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center’s rail car project in Hollywood; and $1.2 million for the Urban League of Broward.

Gibbons predicts the Broward delegation will do well, despite having mostly Democratic members.

“I knew this year was a real opportunity,” he said. “We’ve maintained relationships and are working closely with [House Appropriations] Chair [Seth] McKeel.”

Miami-Dade’s strategy, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz said, is to have lawmakers at each of the budget conference meetings.

“One of the many roles that we have as members of the budget conference is to play defense and make sure there are no surprises,” said Diaz, a Miami Republican and the Dade delegation’s budget chief. “If our delegation is not on high alert, we stand to lose much-needed state support for our community.”

Diaz said there was no shame in pursuing so-called turkeys.

“Every legislator is going to be protecting their hometown,” he said. “Miami-Dade is no exception.”

The strategy seemed to be working. As of Tuesday, many of the Miami-Dade projects had found their way into the budgets negotiated by House and Senate leaders, such as $500,000 of the $750,000 requested for the new military museum.

Rep. Frank Artiles, a Miami Republican and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, helped lobby for it, and said, “The Military Museum of South Florida is a great facility for our community to honor those who sacrificed for our great nation, and to teach our children the history and value of service.”

The $900,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum, which would be used to move it from a house in Little Havana to a new facility in Hialeah Gardens, was also included.

“The veterans have been trying to figure out a way to preserve the history,” said Rep. José Javier Rodriguez, the Miami Democrat spearheading the effort to secure funding. “There is some urgency to get it done. The veterans won’t be around much longer.”

Of course, the budget isn’t done yet. The budget was bumped Tuesday night to appropriation chairmen McKeel, R-Lakeland, and Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Later, Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz will have last crack at it before it’s due in final form on Tuesday. If the projects survive by the time the budget is voted on May 3, Gov. Rick Scott still could veto them.

In his first year in office in 2011, the tea party backlash against government spending was on the upswing when Scott vetoed $615 million in member projects. As he signed the budget at the Villages that year, he called out those members who tried to get funding directed to their hometowns as “Tallahassee insiders.”

Last year, Scott vetoed $143 million in various projects, including $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs historical museum in Miami — on the invasion’s 51st anniversary.

This year, Scott’s political calculations hinge on two of his top priorities: $2,500 automatic pay raises for teachers and $278 million to attract and keep businesses to bolster his bona fides as a “jobs” governor. As of Tuesday, lawmakers wanted to tie the raises to performance and include non-instructional personnel, and pay between $70 million and $81 million.

At this point, the threat of veto is Scott’s best friend. Like a good card player, Scott’s not showing his hand. When asked what projects he intended to veto this year, his office released a short statement that could chill the blood of any lawmaker protecting a turkey.

“The Governor has priorities,” his office said in a statement Monday. “The Legislature has priorities. There’s still enough time left to determine how successful this session will be for all of us.”

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