Plenty of 'turkey' projects in state's $75 billion budget

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 26, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- The drawings of a gleaming 1,000-foot-tall observation tower planned for downtown Miami are eye-catching.

Resembling a badly bent nail clipper, SkyRise Miami would be part event space, part amusement park with a flight-simulation ride and bungee jump.

Also eye-catching: $10 million.

That is what the Florida House is proposing to spend on the project next year, according to a budget proposal released last week.

Other big-ticket items in either the Senate or House proposed budgets: $15 million for the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a bicycle and pedestrian path that links St. Petersburg to Titusville; $4 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; $2.5 million to IMG Academy in Bradenton; $1 million for the Hacienda Hotel in New Port Richey; $2 million for the Tampa Jewish Center; and $2 million for St. Petersburg's 20/20 Agenda, an anti-poverty program.

During the Great Recession, budget deficits and tea party protests meant pork-barrel spending gave way to austerity. But now it's an election year and legislators are looking at a $1.2 billion surplus in what is expected to be a total budget of around $75 billion. So lawmakers are scrambling to haul in projects to benefit

their districts.

"I must have 30 pounds of member requests, stacks and stacks of them, in my office," said Ed Hooper, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee on Transportation and Economic Development. "It was easier to do budgets when we had no money. Now that there's this perceived surplus, there's four to five years of pent-up demand."

The surge in requests promises lawmakers will deliver a plumper budget to Gov. Rick Scott in May, posing an election-year quandary for a politician who came to power riding a crest of tea party frustration with government spending.

"Scott is going to have trouble," said Henry Kelley, former chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party. "He'll be under a lot of pressure to approve these projects, but I don't think letting these projects through is a good way to rally the base."

What to do? If Scott approves local projects people like Kelley deem "turkeys," he risks turning them off as he campaigns against former Gov. Charlie Crist.

"The base will still vote for him," Kelley said. "But will we knock on doors and wave signs for him like we did in 2010 if we think it's business as usual?"

"We are certainly going to look over all these pork and turkey projects and call them to the governor's attention," said Slade O'Brien, who directs the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity. "We don't want to get lazy."

But vetos could alienate constituencies who view the projects as long overdue community investments.

IMG Academy is being considered for a $2.5 million contribution from the state for its campus expansion and that funding for the private sports academy has been listed as one of the turkeys, even though IMG brings in big tourism dollars to Manatee County and the state.

"IMG Performance is one of the region's greatest economic contributors -- from our status as one of the top-10 largest employers in Manatee County to the travel industry business we help generate from the more than 250,000 athletes, coaches, event participants and spectators who travel to our IMG Academy campus annually from more than 100 countries," said Chip McCarthy, IMG vice president of finance.

"Currently, our 110-acre, $197 million planned expansion will support a total of more than 2,600 jobs with wages of more than $90 million and total economic output of more than $321 million, bringing IMG Performance's total economic output to more than $700 million."

Other projects may have a political leg up. Miami-Dade will be pivotal to the governor's race, and South Florida lawmakers are feeling cautiously optimistic about their pet projects.

Early budget proposals include $775,000 for the SEED School of Miami, a charter boarding school; $1.25 million for the Mourning Family Foundation; and $500,000 for the city of Hialeah Educational Academy Charter School. The Senate has $1 million for the Miami Design District and $750,000 for Miami's downtown development authority.

SkyRise Miami towers above them all.

State Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, a Hialeah Republican, called it "an important project for Miami-Dade County."

"This is something that is going to change the landscape of Miami," Gonzalez said. "It will be a huge tourist attraction, and it will create a lot of jobs."

Gonzalez said most of the $430 million project will be privately funded. State funding, he said, would go to public infrastructure, including sidewalks and parking.

Because of its $10 million price tag, Hooper alerted House Speaker Will Weatherford before including it in his committee's initial budget.

"I got no kickback," Hooper said. He said three Republicans and three Democrats made a strong case for the project's economic development potential.

Hooper's counterpart in the Senate, however, remains skeptical.

"Is that really a state project?" said state Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who chairs the Senate's TED appropriations committee. "There are still some questions there."

Gardiner represents an area of the I-4 corridor that also could prove crucial in the gubernatorial race. Gardiner is again seeking a sizable sum for one of his pet projects: the Coast-to-Coast Connector. Last year's $50 million request was vetoed by Scott.

This year, he's seeking $15 million and hopes to get the rest in the future -- which may not be hard, since Gardiner becomes Senate president at the end of the year.

But Gardiner needs to convince the House to include the money in its budget. Over the next few weeks, House and Senate leaders will hash out their differences in a process that can get tricky.

Take the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Last year it received $5 million in preparation for shooting a sequel to the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale. This year's Senate budget includes $1 million. The House's budget upped that total to $4 million.

But Hooper said that doesn't mean the House wants to spend that much on the aquarium.

"There's no way they'll get that, but if I don't park that money now, it won't be available later as we go to conference with the Senate," Hooper said. "I need that money so I can move it around. It really is like making sausages."

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