Millions allotted for pet projects

Article Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post

By Dara Kam
Published May 20, 2007

TALLAHASSEE By the end of the 2007 legislative session, lawmakers were in agreement: It was the leanest budget year the state had fallen victim to in more than a decade, down more than $1 billion from what they had expected.

They decided to slash services for disabled people, the elderly and uninsured children.

At the same time, however, they managed to include at least $200 million in projects that lawmakers pushed through for their communities, even though House Speaker Marco Rubio had told his members early in the session that none of their community requests would be granted because of the expected deficit.

Among the dozens of member projects included in the final budget: $80 million for the Miami Institute for Human Genomics. It's a genetic research center at the University of Miami, the private university where Rubio earned his law degree.

Other local projects were not included in either the House or the Senate budget bills but mysteriously materialized in the final $71.9 billion budget created when House and Senate negotiators met to compromise on their bills.

One example is the $2 million line item for the Wakulla Expo, a civic center in rural Wakulla County near the state capital. The project has the support of Sen. Al Lawson, the Tallahassee Democrat who is next in line to be the chamber's minority leader.

That, said Rep. Ron Saunders, is a telltale sign of a "turkey," the term sometimes used derisively in Tallahassee to describe a member project.

"One of the most obvious turkeys is when a project appears that wasn't heard in any committee hearing and wasn't in any budget before conference," said Saunders, a Key West Democrat who was appropriations chairman when Democrats were in control of both chambers more than a decade ago.

Now, with the GOP controlling the House, the Senate and the Governor's Mansion, the budget process begins months before lawmakers convene for the legislative session in the spring.

Well before the session begins, lawmakers submit "community budget issue requests," or member projects, and are asked to justify the projects by identifying whether the governor or a state agency has recommended them and saying whether each item has been heard by a group of elected officials at a publicly noticed meeting.

Some lawmakers simply answer no to that question. Others respond that the project was heard by the county delegation that recommended it.

That isn't adequate, said Saunders, one of only two members of the Monroe County delegation. Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, is the other.

"The process should have been that every member project should have had a legislative hearing, not a delegation hearing," Saunders said. "If nobody requested it and nobody knows what it is, maybe it shouldn't be funded. Why are the people in the Keys funding an expo center in Wakulla County?"

Although the law requires that the final budget be on the desks of all lawmakers 72 hours before they can vote on it, they often don't know of every project appearing in it. For example, several lawmakers who were asked about specific projects, including $900,000 for a Gospel Complex for Education in Fort Lauderdale, said they had no idea they existed in the 429-page budget known as a conference report.

Saunders said he irked lawmakers when, as appropriations chairman more than a decade ago, he required them to justify the projects to the committee and staff.

But Rep. David Rivera, a top lieutenant of Rubio's, said the Republican's process this time was justified because certain amounts of money were allocated to different areas, and the extra money in those pots was used to fund the member projects.

And with 2,022 projects on the table to start the year, it would take too long to vet each project before a committee, he said.

"That's always been the project process," said Rivera, R-Miami, who sponsored the Miami Institute for Human Genomics funding.

Rubio, R-West Miami, has excoriated local government officials for failing to roll back tax rates enough to offset property value increases and has taken them to task for out-of-control spending.

At the same time, the 2007-08 budget includes $4 million in Senate President Ken Pruitt's district for an office to attract biotech businesses to St. Lucie County, $1.3 million to beautify upscale Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and $2 million to help pay for the Tampa Riverwalk.

Some lawmakers question whether taxpayers statewide should have to subsidize local projects such as these.

"The budget process has always had its mysteries. That's just the way it works," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Policy and Budget Council member who was frustrated because the budget failed to adequately fund the Agency for Persons with Disabilities, instead capping some services and cutting others altogether while doing nothing to address a waiting list in excess of 14,000.

The Bradenton Republican also was one of a bipartisan group of lawmakers upset that KidCare, the state-backed program that provides insurance for poor and underinsured children, was not expanded, leaving about 400,000 uninsured.

Even those who do not object to member projects and have used them to land goodies for their hometown communities admit lawmakers often are talking out of both sides of their mouths.

"The legislature has been so hypocritical," said Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller of Cooper City. "I am not somebody that inherently believes that member projects are bad, because in many cases the member knows better than the state agency what we need."

But Geller added: "I find it astonishing that the same people that continue to talk about how local government needs to be tightening their belt don't feel the same compunctions about putting money into their projects."

Lawmakers and others are waiting to see how Gov. Charlie Crist handles his first budget, which he must act on by Thursday. He has a line-item veto, meaning he can cut any of the individual projects in the budget.

Crist, though, has not yet made clear how he will handle the so-called turkeys, which his predecessor, Jeb Bush, frequently axed, including $264 million of a total $690 million in member projects in his first year as governor.

Dominic Calabro heads Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed nonprofit organization that compiles an annual list of budget turkeys. His group's list is not complete yet, but at first blush, he said the budget includes a "boatload" of such items.

Calabro said it's unfair that that legislators who have the most clout have the best chance of getting their projects funded, as has been the case in previous years.

"It basically says that political might makes right," Calabro said. "That the most influential member gets what they want, whether it's meritorious, whether it's prioritized, whether they wait in line or not. That's just un-American."