TALLAHASSEE -- Unlike previous years, when lawmakers struggled to plug deficits, this years budget is awash in cash.
Now, in the final week of the session, lawmakers have about $1.2 billion in surplus, bonus money that can go pretty much anywhere they choose.
That fact has stirred loose an avalanche of hometown projects, the likes of which Tallahassee hasnt seen in an election year since 2006.
Think about it: Whats the average size of member projects, $200,000? said Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach. Divide that into a billion. Thats a whole lot of projects ... a lot of lawmakers are going to be happy.
Some projects are relatively small: A $350,000 fountain in the states richest town, Palm Beach, and $123,000 for a dog park in an affluent Jacksonville neighborhood. Others are big: $12 million for Florida House Speaker Will Weatherfords alma mater, the private Jacksonville University, and $3 million for an industrial park in Walton County.
Such items could be easy pickings for Gov. Rick Scotts veto.
I think this budget will produce a record amount of vetoes in Florida history, said Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who noted that the budget is larger than ever.
The states total annual spending plan stands at $77.1 billion, but lawmakers really only control $27.6 billion of that, the general revenue dollars.
The surplus $1.2-billion is being spent in a way that offers the public few clues as to where it is going and why.
On Tuesday night, negotiators printed and distributed the budget to lawmakers, who are constitutionally required to pass it by 11:59 p.m. Friday. Hours before publication, a flurry of projects were being inserted, including $2 million for Laurens Kids, a charity run by the daughter of powerful lobbyist Ron Book. The night before, negotiators announced millions in projects that previously hadnt been in either the House or Senate budgets.
Former state Sen. Steve Geller, a Democrat from Broward County, said legislative leaders use the budget to win votes for their highest priorities.
There are pots of money held in abeyance for when they need to get the votes they need for the budget or other bills, Geller said. Its been happening since time immemorial.
Environmentalists groused that Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, steered $82 million to his top priorities, Indian River Lagoon and Lake Okeechobee, at the expense of statewide needs.
Its a zero sum game, and here we are with more revenue in the budget, but less money for statewide resource protection, said Janet Bowman, a lobbyist for the Nature Conservancy.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, defended local projects long derided as turkeys because they arent fully vetted by professionals at state agencies.
Why are (members) individual projects in the budget? Gaetz said. The answer is 19 million people elect 40 senators and 120 House members and provide us with input on what they think is important in their own communities. The only received divine wisdom does not come from executive agencies.
Member projects may not require a lot of public explanation, but they do offer winning legislators bragging rights.
At a dinner last week for the conservative James Madison Institute, Weatherford and Gaetz made an announcement.
Weve been working together to create an endowed chair of free enterprise and entrepreneurship, Weatherford told the applauding crowd. Were happy to do that together in honor of a great man.
That would be Charlie Hilton, the mentor of Weatherfords father-in-law, former House Speaker Allan Bense. At the time of the announcement, neither chamber had the item budgeted. Only later did the $600,000 item appear.
One persons turkey is another persons eagle, observed Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables.
Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/04/30/4088283/with-cash-to-spare-legislators.html#storylink=cpy