Florida Politics

Hometown pet projects face new scrutiny in Florida Legislature

The tiny Panhandle town of Altha wants Florida taxpayers to buy its 536 residents a shiny new garbage truck for $100,000.

The Miami International Boat Show is banking on $500,000 from the state to pay its relocation costs, and an American Legion post in Key West wants to raise a toast to a $154,000 construction grant.

The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is seeking $1 million for a regional rapid transit study and Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa wants $500,000 for a manatee hospital.

In a year when the Florida Legislature thought it would have a generous surplus, the list goes on: youth sports academies, community and cultural centers, highway beautification projects and a cool $1 million for a “field of dreams,” literally, in West Melbourne. Those projects and hundreds more are packed into budgets passed by the Senate and House in the regular session in April.

But times have changed.

Legislative leaders warn that some projects may be on the chopping block in the coming days because of the need for the state to shift tax dollars to a low income pool that compensates hospitals for charity care. The Obama administration has said the state can expect less federal money next year, and the state is looking to plug a projected hole of as much as $600 million.

“There’s going to be a pruning,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. “It’s very simple math. We have to scale back our expectations, and I think the members are aware of that.”

Three other budget imperatives also come with big dollar signs: the political will among Republicans to cut taxes, the first-year funding of land and water protections under Amendment 1, which passed last year, and more money for schools next year.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said the need to patch the budget with state tax revenue will have a “ripple effect” that will be obvious when budget negotiations begin this weekend after legislative leaders release allocations.

“The responsible thing to do is backfill with general revenue, run it through a model and figure out what you to do to make sure that hospitals are at least not being shut down,” Gardiner said. “Whether you like it or not, that’s going to have a ripple effect throughout the budget.”

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, agreed.

“It certainly puts member projects in jeopardy, but it’s about finding compromise and common ground,” Crisafulli said.

In a budget that’s likely to exceed $77 billion, the money allocated for local projects is relatively small. But they are the priorities of key constituency groups back home and they are the projects lawmakers will want to brag about when they visit their Kiwanis and Rotary clubs this summer.

The House budget includes $1 million for the historic Tampa Theatre, an historic landmark in the city’s Uptown district; $150,000 for a Holocaust memorial on Miami Beach; and $150,000 for a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami. The latter project was vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2013.

If any project appears immune from Scott’s veto pen, it’s the $3.8 million in both budgets for Aventura-based Lauren’s Kids, a statewide program to promote awareness of sexual abuse and to help survivors. The program has come under criticism because it is run by Lauren Book, a Democratic candidate for a Senate seat in Broward County and the daughter of Ron Book, a prominent lobbyist.

Scott spoke at a rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in April after volunteers walked across the state to promote awareness.

“We’re going to do everything we can to make this the safest place in the entire world to grow up,” Scott told the group. “Lauren and Ron, thank you for doing this.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.