TALLAHASSEE -- Turn to any page of Florida’s 450-page budget and what’s most striking is the missing detail.
Yes, as page 421 points out, it’s a $74.5 billion spending plan that pays for 114,480.5 positions. But specific descriptions about what the money actually pays for are noticeably absent.
“Mossy Head Industrial Park Infrastructure (Walton County)... $1,800,000,” it says on page 293. “Rowing Center — Sarasota County.....$5,000,000.”
That’s it. No other explanation is provided as to what these projects are. The first project is located in the district of Senate President Don Gaetz. The second wasn’t included in the initial House or Senate budgets but was added later as leaders in the two chambers met privately. Scott vetoed money for the rowing center in 2011, but let it pass last year when lawmakers approved the same amount for the facility.
The Herald/Times asked if it could review any information lawmakers looked at before approving projects such as $2.3 million for an athletic prep school in Bradenton or $500,000 for a documentary film on St. Augustine, but was told that was not feasible.
“There isn’t simply a central stock pile of information in the appropriations office,” replied Gaetz’s spokeswoman, Katie Betta, in an email. “In many instances, an extensive search that diverts the time and resources of staff from other responsibilities will reveal no additional records exist.”
“It’s really hard to get a handle on what these projects are,” said Kurt Wenner, vice president of tax research for Florida Tax Watch. “A lot of time even the agencies don’t know.”
On Thursday, the budget landed on the desk of Scott, who said he’ll be looking at hometown projects closely to determine what stays in and what goes. He has until May 24 to issue vetoes. He’s already being asked to eliminate $250,000 requested by the Department of Agriculture to promote alligator meat, leather and by-products. He vetoed $150,000 in 2011 earmarked for alligator marketing.
“We are urging Gov. Scott not to waste state funds to promote alligator products,” said Don Anthony, spokesman for the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. “The state of Florida should not be in the business of marketing the meat and skin of this unique Florida animal.”
This week Florida Tax Watch is releasing its annual report on so-called “turkeys” — projects the group flags if the Legislature didn’t follow budget rules, steered money to a single recipient without competition or approved an expenditure without adequate public review. Projects that surface later, during House and Senate budget negotiations, are typically called turkeys. Many projects that hadn’t been mentioned the previous six weeks suddenly appear. Others that had been approved simply vanish.
A Leon County grand jury concluded that it was the Legislature’s lack of budget transparency in 2008 that allowed former House Speaker Ray Sansom to steer $6 million for a state-funded airplane building to a political ally and major Republican donor. Despite the grand jury findings, lawmakers still make deals in private.
“Finding out who asked is very hard to do,” Wenner said. “You often don’t know.”