With cash to spare, legislators clamor to get pet projects in the budget

Lawmakers have about $1.2 billion in surplus, bonus money that can go pretty much anywhere they choose.

04/30/2014 6:00 AM

09/08/2014 7:16 PM

Unlike previous years, when lawmakers struggled to plug deficits, this year’s budget is awash in cash.

Now, in the final week of the session, lawmakers have about $1.2 billion in surplus, bonus money that can go pretty much anywhere they choose.

That fact has stirred loose an avalanche of hometown projects, the likes of which Tallahassee hasn’t seen in an election year since 2006, before Florida’s boom busted.

“Think about it: What’s the average size of member projects, $200,000?” said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. “Divide that into a billion. That’s a whole lot of projects … a lot of lawmakers are going to be happy.”

Some projects are relatively small: A $350,000 fountain in the state’s richest town, Palm Beach, and $123,000 for a dog park in an affluent Jacksonville neighborhood. Others are big: $12 million for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford’s alma mater, the private Jacksonville University, and $3 million for an industrial park in Walton County.

Such items could be easy pickings for Gov. Rick Scott’s veto.

“I think this budget will produce a record amount of vetoes in Florida history,” said Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who noted that the budget is larger than ever.

The state’s total annual spending plan for next year stands at $77.1 billion — about $2.6 billion more than the current year — but lawmakers really only control $27.6 billion of that, the general-revenue dollars.

The surplus $1.2 billion is being spent in a way that offers the public few clues as to where it is going and why.

On Tuesday night, negotiators printed and distributed the budget to lawmakers, who are constitutionally required to pass it by 11:59 p.m. Friday. Hours before publication, a flurry of projects were being inserted, including $2 million for Lauren’s Kids, a charity run by the daughter of powerful lobbyist Ron Book. The night before, negotiators announced millions in projects that previously hadn’t been in either the House or Senate budgets.

Former state Sen. Steve Geller, a Democrat from Broward County, said legislative leaders use the budget to win votes for their highest priorities.

“There are pots of money held in abeyance for when they need to get the votes they need for the budget or other bills,” Geller said. “It’s been happening since time immemorial.”

Environmentalists groused that Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, steered $82 million to his top priorities, Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee, at the expense of statewide needs.

“It’s a zero sum game, and here we are with more revenue in the budget, but less money for statewide resource protection,” said Janet Bowman, a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, defended local projects, which have been long derided as “turkeys” because they aren’t fully vetted by professionals at state agencies.

“Why are [members’] individual projects in the budget?” Gaetz said. “The answer is 19 million people elect 40 senators and 120 House members and provide us with input on what they think is important in their own communities. The only received divine wisdom does not come from executive agencies.”

Member projects might not require a lot of public explanation, but they do offer winning legislators bragging rights.

At a dinner last week for the conservative James Madison Institute, Weatherford and Gaetz made an announcement.

“We’ve been working together to create an endowed chair of free enterprise and entrepreneurship,” Weatherford told the applauding crowd. “We’re happy to do that together in honor of a great man.”

That would be Charlie Hilton, the mentor of Weatherford’s father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense. At the time of the announcement, neither chamber had the item budgeted. Only later did the $600,000 item appear.

“One person’s turkey is another person’s eagle,” observed Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables.

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