After years of secretly stashing money into budgets with little public scrutiny, state lawmakers are being forced to defend their requests for hometown projects in broad daylight.
In Florida’s Capitol, that’s called reform.
It’s part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s agenda to drag discretionary pork-barrel spending out of the shadows.
But if the goal was to shame lawmakers into taming their appetites for spending, it hasn’t happened.
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Even in a year when the state has a tiny surplus and demands are as great as ever, the project wish lists remain massive, more than 1,200 in all, equal to 10 for every member of the House of Representatives.
They would cost $2.6 billion, more than the entire annual budget of the Florida prison system, the third-largest in the United States.
The bottom-line number itself is something of a revelation. In past years, only a resourceful staffer would have taken the time to add up every request.
Lawmakers say it shows a growing need for services that the state and local governments can’t or won’t provide, for drug and alcohol abuse treatment, respite care for the elderly, the arts, roads, bridges, parks, drainage, sewer and waste water improvements.
The three priciest House projects in South Florida are $80 million for a reservoir in Broward and Palm Beach counties to reduce discharges into the Lake Worth lagoon; $29 million for a Broward College building for students in science, technology, engineering and math; and $20 million so that Florida International University can acquire 64 acres adjacent to its main campus for future expansion.
The House member with the most expensive project list is Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, at $152.8 million. But most of that amount, $100.1 million, is for the state to make court-ordered payments to landowners whose trees were destroyed during the citrus canker outbreak.
Every session brings a parade of requests for money, many of them by vendors who rely on state grants to survive and who, as much as ever, hire lobbyists to help bring the money home. Many projects would benefit nonprofit groups.
The difference this year is that every request must be filed as a separate, stand-alone bill accompanied by a 20-question survey, including the size of a local funding match, whether the program has been documented by a study, and how much money is spent on services and salaries.
The information is online at myfloridahouse.gov.
Every request had to be filed by March 7, the first day of the session, and must be heard by a legislative committee.
One by one Tuesday, House members pitched 50 requests to a budget subcommittee for healthcare.
“I’m here to ask you for a new roof,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who’s seeking a $790,000 appropriation to replace a 20-year-old roof at The ARC Broward in Sunrise, which serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, wants to get $525,000 to help the city of Sunny Isles Beach design and obtain permits for a senior center.
Most requests were discussed in less than two minutes, and every one passed unanimously.
That doesn’t mean they will make it into the House budget. Those decisions will still be influenced by favoritism and politics involving Corcoran; his chief budget-writer, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami; and the Senate leadership.
Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, was the only panel member who questioned whether Florida taxpayers should have to pay for purely parochial spending.
“It seems like a very local project,” Pigman said of Geller’s senior center.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, filed 27 projects at a total cost of $47 million. The project that won a favorable subcommittee vote Tuesday would spend $686,000 to put solar energy panels on 18 group homes in Tampa Bay to reduce energy costs.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” Latvala said. “But when we can bring money back home, that’s something I certainly want to do.”
Latvala has an edge over a lot of his colleagues: His father, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is in charge of writing the budget in the Senate.
LobbyTools, the legislative research and bill tracking service, ranked House members based on how many projects they’re requesting.
At the top of the list is Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican who represents five rural counties across the Panhandle.
His 45 projects, many in small towns bordering Alabama and Georgia that are struggling economically, would cost taxpayers $131.7 million.
“The objective is to make sure they have an opportunity to be scrutinized,” Drake said. “I don’t want to deny my constituents a budget item that would benefit my community.”
Jenne, who’s in his ninth year in the House in two tours of duty, has worked with Republicans behind the scenes for years to bring money to Broward County.
“Now we actually have to do it in the light of day, and I’ve got no problem with that,” Jenne said.
Contact Steve Bousquet at email@example.com and follow @stevebousquet.
The 10 House members who have sponsored the most appropriations project bills, and the total amounts:
Jose Felix Diaz
Source: LobbyTools; Florida House