After years of secretly stashing money into budgets with little public scrutiny, state lawmakers are being forced to defend their requests for hometown projects in broad daylight.
In Florida’s Capitol, that’s called reform.
It’s part of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s agenda to drag discretionary pork-barrel spending out of the shadows.
But if the goal was to shame lawmakers into taming their appetites for spending, it hasn’t happened.
Even in a year when the state has a tiny surplus and demands are as great as ever, the project wish lists remain massive, more than 1,200 in all, equal to 10 for every member of the House of Representatives.
They would cost $2.7 billion, more than the entire annual budget of the Florida prison system, the third-largest in the United States.
The bottom-line number itself is something of a revelation. In past years, only a resourceful staffer would have taken the time to add up every request.
Lawmakers say it shows a growing need for services that the state and local governments can’t or won’t provide, for drug and alcohol abuse treatment, respite care for the elderly, the arts, roads, bridges, parks, drainage, sewer and wastewater improvements.
Several Manatee County projects are among the requests, including $4 million for a new YMCA swimming pool/community center at Pride Park sought by Rep. Wengay Newtown, D-St. Petersburg; $2.8 million for flood control improvements in Rubonia; and $500,000 for an opioid addiction recovery peer program. The Rubonia and opioid projects are sponsored by Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota.
Sarasota County requests include $5.75 million for Benderson Park improvements in advance of 2017 World Rowing Championships; $1.65 million for an expansion at Mote Marine; and $600,000 for low-income housing services, each sponsored by Gruters.
Also, among Rep. Jim Boyd’s requests is $373,600 for expansion of a school operated by Easter Seals Southwest Florida; and $3 million for the All-Star Children’s Foundation to build foster homes for abused children.
Every session beings a parade of requests for money, many of them by vendors who rely on state grants to survive and who, as much as ever, hire lobbyists to help bring the money home. Many projects would benefit non-profit groups.
The difference this year is that every request must be filed as a separate, stand-alone bill accompanied by a 20-question survey, including the size of a local funding match, whether the program has been documented by a study, and how much money is spent on services and salaries.
The information is online at myfloridahouse.gov.
Every request had to be filed by March 7, the first day of the session, and must be heard by a legislative committee.
One by one Tuesday, House members pitched 50 requests to a budget subcommittee for health care.
“I’m here to ask you for a new roof,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach, who’s seeking a $790,000 appropriation to replace a 20-year-old roof at The ARC Broward in Sunrise, which serves adults with developmental disabilities.
Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, wants to get $525,000 to help the city of Sunny Isles Beach design and obtain permits for a senior center.
Most requests were discussed in less than two minutes, and every one passed unanimously.
That doesn’t mean they will make it into the House budget. Those decisions will still be influenced by favoritism and politics involving Corcoran; his chief budget-writer, Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami; and the Senate leadership.
Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, was the only panel member who questioned whether Florida taxpayers should have to pay for purely parochial spending.
“It seems like a very local project,” Pigman said of Geller’s senior center.
Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, filed 27 projects at a total cost of $47 million. The project that won a favorable subcommittee vote Tuesday would spend $686,000 to put solar energy panels on 18 group homes in Tampa Bay to reduce energy costs.
“I’m a fiscal conservative,” Latvala said. “But when we can bring money back home, that’s something I certainly want to do.”
Latvala has an edge over a lot of his colleagues: His father, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is in charge of writing the budget in the Senate.
LobbyTools, the legislative research and bill tracking service, ranked House members based on how much money they’re requesting.
At the top of the list is Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican who represents five rural counties across the Panhandle.
His 45 projects, many in small towns bordering Alabama and Georgia that are struggling economically, would cost taxpayers $138 million.
“The objective is to make sure they have an opportunity to be scrutinized,” Drake said. “I don’t want to deny my constituents a budget item that would benefit my community.”
The House member with the most expensive project list is Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, at $153 million. But most of that amount, $100.1 million, is for the state to make court-ordered payments to landowners when the state acquires trees affected by citrus canker.
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The 10 House members who have sponsored the most appropriations project bills, and the total amounts:
Jose Felix Diaz
Source: LobbyTools; Florida House