TALLAHASSEE -- Florida TaxWatch released its annual list of budget “turkeys” on Friday, flagging $120 million in spending the group says was included by lawmakers without the proper public vetting, including large projects in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Miami-Dade had 11 projects on the list, including: $2 million for a 1,000-foot-tall observation tower called SkyRise Miami; $3.4 million for the 6-mile multiuse Ludlam Trail; $5 million for a gymnasium at Miami-Dade College; $1.87 million for the Hialeah Gardens Educational Center; $1 million for a causeway in the Town of Bay Harbor Islands; and $1 million for Munroe Marine Stadium in Miami.
Broward had 10 projects, including: $3 million for Topeekeegee Yugnee Park; $2 million for Hugh Taylor Birch State Park and $500,000 for road improvements in Deerfield Beach.
Overall, the self-appointed watchdog identified 107 projects in next year’s $77.1 billion budget that account for a minuscule portion of overall proposed state spending — about one-quarter of 1 percent. More than 30 percent of the money targeted comes from projects slated for Tampa Bay.
“We’re talking about a significant amount of money,” said Robert Weissert, TaxWatch’s chief research officer and general counsel. “(It’s a case of) government reaching into people’s pockets and taking out that money, and public budgeting is a trust and it’s a process that must not only be transparent and accountable but held to the highest standards.”
As it does every year, the group timed the release of the report to the governor’s review of the budget, which was passed by lawmakers on May 3. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott was sent the budget, and has until June 4 to veto any of its 4,000 line items.
“We now call upon the governor to exercise his constitutional authority and responsibility of the line item veto and to scrutinize carefully (this report),” Weissert said.
It’s unclear how much the list influences Scott. Much of the list identifies low hanging fruit that make inviting veto targets anyway. For instance, this year the group identified a $123,000 dog park in an affluent neighborhood in Jacksonville, $350,000 for a fountain in wealthy Palm Beach, and $3 million for a dormant industrial park in Walton County that Scott vetoed last year.
Last year, Scott vetoed 71 of the 107 projects the group identified, nixing $71.1 million in spending. In 2012, he vetoed 97 of the group’s 159 so-called turkeys, which eliminated $63 million. In his first year in office, 2011, Scott vetoed 83 percent of the group’s turkeys, which totaled about $181 million.
Florida TaxWatch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan “research institute” founded in 1979 by a group of former Florida lawmakers and business owners who wanted to better control government spending. The group started its turkey list in 1986. The projects identified aren’t questioned on their merit or value, Weissert said, but in how they were included in the budget.
About 80 percent of turkeys weren’t included in either the House or Senate preliminary budgets. Instead, these projects were included in the proposed budget during conference meetings between the two chambers, when more than a $1 billion in spending was added with no clear paper trail.
“A budget conference should be used to compromise differences in funding levels, on funding something that was in one budget but not the other,” said Kurt Wenner, the group’s vice president of tax research. “It should not be used to introduce brand new programs, particularly ones that go to a private entity or a narrow part of the state.”
But Senate Appropriations chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, a longtime critic of TaxWatch, scoffed at that criteria for a turkey.
He said lawmakers have a constitutional responsibility to include projects in the conference project.
“The turkey list has become a meaningless springtime ritual that’s as annoying as the pollen in Tallahassee,” Negron said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to what they included on the list.”