Taxwatch: Fewer turkeys, less transparency in Florida's budget process

Reforms to the way the Legislature puts its budget together lowered the number of "turkeys" wedged into the spending plan, but there are still some items Gov. Rick Scott should consider vetoing, a Tallahassee-based think tank said Friday.

Florida TaxWatch included $177.8 million worth of spending in its annual "Turkey Watch" report —- aimed at identifying projects that were added to the $82.4 billion spending plan under processes the business-backed organization objects to on the grounds of transparency or accountability.

Overall, lawmakers approved several pieces of legislation that would spend $83.1 billion on state government over the year that begins July 1, but some of that spending was outside of the actual budget plan.

TaxWatch flagged 111 budget items as turkeys, though the organization stresses that it isn't making a value judgment on the projects, generally shepherded through the process by individual House and Senate members.

Instead, the concerns the group raises are about process, such as whether the line item overrode projects given a priority by state agencies, whether it was added in House-Senate negotiations over the budget, or whether it tripped a few other procedural questions.

Kurt Wenner, the organization's vice president for research, said budget reforms spearheaded by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, helped hold down the number of projects that appeared in the spending plan during the negotiations despite not being in either the House or Senate's initial draft.

Corcoran insisted that any projects be filed as individual bills to be considered for the House budget, and the Senate required requests to be formally put on paper as well.

That limited the number of things that ended up in the budget during the "conference" process where differences between the House and Senate are hammered out, Wenner said.

"Even though they didn't meet the goal of 'no conference adds,' they came fairly close," Wenner said. "That's a significant improvement because of the numbers that they usually put in there."

Among the largest turkeys identified are a $15 million interchange for I-75 in Pasco County, where Corcoran lives; nearly $11.9 million for bridge and tunnel construction in Miami Gardens; and $10 million for Citrus Grove Road in Lake County. Almost $141.1 million of the turkeys this year were transportation projects.

At the same time that there was some progress, TaxWatch said, there were also issues with the way state spending was negotiated.

For example, Wenner said the organization had qualms about how much of the discussion between House and Senate leaders wasn't public, and he indicated the group was also uneasy with the process that produced a massive education bill (HB 7069) that includes almost $419 million in spending outside the budget.

"Although member projects were more transparent and accountable, I think it's certainly hard to say that the budget process as a whole was more transparent and accountable than it had been," Wenner said.

For their part, lawmakers have insisted the process was transparent. Corcoran in particular was fond of touting the project improvements as a sign of the openness.

"Every single thing that you're seeing in the budget —- for the first time since the '68 (state) constitution, we now see it all," he told reporters late in the session. "There was nothing that came in late, nothing that came in on the back of a napkin."

Neither Corcoran nor Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, responded through spokespeople to requests for comment on the TaxWatch list.

But large swaths of the budget were still negotiated behind closed doors. Several education groups have called on Scott to veto the education bill both because of some of the policy inside the measure and because of the process used to put it together.

And while the process for projects led to fewer turkeys this year, TaxWatch said the overall number of those projects —- about 700 of them, valued at more than $600 million —- was unusual.

"For member projects, I would say that there are at least as many as there have been in any year lately, and probably more so than in the last couple," Wenner said.

Scott has not said what he will do with the budget, which has not been sent to him yet. Once the Legislature presents him with the bill, he will have 15 days to decide whether to sign it, veto it or strike individual items with his line-item veto.


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