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Politics

Turkey Day: Florida TaxWatch Gives Legislature's Budget Mixed Reviews

May 15, 2013 - 6:00pm

Florida's legislators showed restraint when crafting the 2013-14 budget, but they still included almost $107 million in projects that received little or no public review, according to one of the state's leading government watchdogs.

Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan research institute based in Tallahassee, released its annual Turkey Watch Report Thursday morning, identifying 107 projects totaling $106.8 million.

It is a relatively small percentage of the $74.5 billion state budget, less than half of 1 percent, general counsel Robert Weissert conceded to reporters assembled at the Florida Press Center. However, this is more than $100 million in taxpayer funds that could have been used for other government priorities.

The report commends these projects to Gov. Rick Scott's consideration during the line-item veto process.

Kurt Wenner, vice president for tax research, emphasized that turkeys are not simply pork barrel appropriations to a legislator's district. Instead, a project makes the turkey list when it has not received public scrutiny or was funded ahead of other projects identified as greater priorities by the appropriate government agencies.

We want to make clear that the turkey label does not mean that we are condemning the worthiness of the project or even making a judgment on that project, he said. The turkey report focuses on the budget, to make sure everything receives the scrutiny that it should.

This year, 70 turkeys were added to the budget last-minute, after the House and Senate each passed their budgets, and during the conference committees held by Sen. Joe Negron and Rep. Seth McKeeel in order to reconcile the difference between the two.

Because the final Conference Report cannot be amended, it can only be voted up or down, forcing the Legislature to vote the entire budget down in order to object to specific items, the report notes. Again, many of these projects may be worthwhile, but the fact remains that special earmarks ignore or limit fiscal and performance accountability, agency flexibility and discretion, and often bypass competitive selection processes.

Although Florida experienced a budget surplus for the first time in several years, there are actually less turkeys in this year's budget than in 2012-13. Last year, there were 159 Turkeys totaling $171 million.

We commend the 2013 Legislature for what we think is a good budget. Chairmen Negron and McKeel are to commended for their work in doing a lot of things without raising taxes and still keeping $2 billion in reserves, Wenner told reporters. They increased funding for education and a lot of other areas, [including] raises for teachers and state employees. The budget also has a lot of cost-savings in it and a lot of good proviso language that increases accountability for spending. A lot of things we like.

During Scott's two years as governor, he has vetoed about 70 percent of projects identified as turkeys by Florida TaxWatch. The institute says these vetoes have resulted in $244 million in savings to taxpayers.

Reach Eric Giunta at egiunta@sunshinestatenews.com or at (954) 235-9116.

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