Lean budget prods lawmakers to trim pork ahead of Crist

May 8, 2008

Palm Beach Post--May 07, 2008

Palm Beach Post Capital Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Last year, Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a record $459 million from the state’s $71 billion budget, axing projects from mentoring programs to rodeo complexes.

But with $6 billion less to spend this year, lawmakers were reluctant to push the "pork" for their districts, at least overtly, in the pared-down $66.2 billion budget, and Crist’s red pen likely will be left with a lot more ink if he can even find the questionable spending in the 408-page document.

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Pet projects

In a lean budget year, lawmakers were still seeking money for projects ranging from sinking ships to film festivals.

    * Vandenberg artificial reef program off Florida Keys, $1 million, funds sinking a decommissioned vessel to create an artificial reef near Key West.

    * Activity-Based Total Accountability Institute at the Florida Institute of Technology, $800,000, program included in private college funding.

    * Outpatient Baker Act Pilot Program, $550,000, pilot program in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties regarding patients ordered for mental health evaluations.

    * Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, $500,000, training for charter school teachers and administrators.

    * CAMACOL/Film Initiative, $150,000, film project benefiting the Latin American Chamber of Commerce.

    * New Parent Information Kit Pilot Program, $90,000, pilot program in Leon, Martin, Manatee counties.

The Palm Beach Post identified at least $40 million in local projects statewide, some embedded at the last minute in the state budget approved by lawmakers Friday and awaiting Crist’s approval.

The analysis identified far fewer than in previous years, not unexpected in the second consecutive year of lower tax collections in Florida for the first time in recent history.

Known as "turkeys," these local projects have no statewide benefit.

That doesn’t mean they don’t warrant funding, said Florida TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro, whose business-backed, nonprofit organization produces an annual evaluation of "turkeys" based on how they got into the budget and their statewide relevance.

Just because they’re harder to find doesn’t mean lawmakers haven’t found a way to get them in, Calabro said.

"It’s the normal cat-and-mouse game," he said. "Legislators have always been optimizing their success in the budget outside the governor’s veto powers. We wouldn’t expect anything different."

Projects sponsored by GOP leaders, as well as the GOP governor, are most likely to get funding.

Despite cuts to health care, education and corrections, the budget includes $150,000 for the Latin American Chamber of Commerce Film Initiative, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantero, R-Miami, who is close to House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami.

And a $7.5 million boost to Miami-Dade County schools magically appeared in the budget, presumably at the behest of Rubio, who is leaving office due to term limits.

Democrats garnered some projects as well, including Sen. Larcenia Bullard, who nailed down $3.6 million for a three-year "children’s zone" pilot program in her hometown of Miami to "revitalize communities, support parents and to provide comprehensive care for all children," according to the budget language.

Palm Beach County and Treasure Coast lawmakers in the past secured hundreds of thousands of dollars for county courthouse renovations.

Not this year.

"This is the first time I have not been able to get funding for the small courthouses in my district," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, who in previous years gleaned dollars for Glades and Hendry county courthouses. "There’s no money for that. When you have a $5 billion budget (deficit), that serves as its own turkey killer. They’re the last thing that should be funded, if at all."

House Majority Leader Adam Hasner had a lone member project on his list – $385,000 for the Florida Israel Institute, a Boca Raton-based enterprise that promotes connections between Florida and Israel. It did not get funded.

"When you have to reduce $6 billion in spending, a lot of those projects which had been perennial take-homes for members were omitted because they weren’t priorities," said Hasner, R-Delray Beach. "We had to prioritize and preserve the core missions of government, and we did that by funding education, health care and public safety and putting people over things."