TALLAHASSEE -- Even in these lean financial times, state lawmakers have found enough cash to pay for orange juice at Florida welcome centers, needy senior meals, a biker group safety study, extra buildings for colleges and a grant to aid the prosecution of accused killer mom Casey Anthony.
These are just a few of the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of special items and pet projects dear to top state lawmakers who are simultaneously trimming nearly $4 billion in projected state spending next budget year.
There’s little agreement about what’s needed and what’s wasteful. There’s little discussion at all. The projects often receive little public discussion before they’re slipped into the phonebook-thick budgets proposed by the House and Senate.
The myriad items -- from $500,000 for an Ocala horse park to a $400,000 expense for a mobile dental unit for Jacksonville’s poor -- highlights the size and scope of Florida’s budget. All of it also underscores the fact that lawmakers feel the need to bring home some bacon -- even in a Republican-led Legislature that often criticizes government spending.
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“Not all government spending is bad,” said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera. “Spent the right way, public money creates jobs and it helps people.”
Regardless of scope or topic, these special spending items have one thing in common: strong ties to top state lawmakers.
Orange County, home to House Speaker Dean Cannon, got a $350,000 special payment in the House budget for its prosecutor to handle the high-profile Casey Anthony murder case. Altman lobbied for the $15 million appropriation in the Senate budget for a public safety institute at Brevard Community College -- a former employer of Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
The outspoken chairman of the Senate’s criminal-justice budget committee, New Port Richey’s Mike Fasano, has secured $1.75 million to fight illegal pill mills in Pasco County. And the influential Miami-Dade delegation has found projects big and small to fund: $55 million for port dredging in the House budget, $15 million for the county’s health department and $49 million for Miami-Dade College.
The special spending items have a variety of nicknames: earmarks, member projects, pork and “turkeys” in Tallahassee parlance.
To Miriam Urra, the money is a godsend. “There is a lot of need out there and not so much money,” said Urra, executive director for the Allapattah Community Action, which received $428,000 in the Senate’s budget version to pay for meals for seniors in one of Miami’s poorest neighborhoods.
Urra said the center used to serve meals 7 days a week. But the economy tanked. Money dried up. And the number of hungry seniors increased.
The House hasn’t included the Allapattah money in its budget. So there’s no guarantee. The House and Senate will reconcile their budgets in the coming weeks, leaving some projects on the cutting room floor while potentially adding others.
The Senate’s proposal is $71.2 billion. The House: $66.5 billion.
Some local projects slated for funding include:
n The Benderson World Class International Regatta Sports Center ($500,000 in Senate version, $0 House).
n Loveland Center Inc. in Sarasota County, which helps adults with developmental disabilities ($500,000 Senate, $0 House).
n Nonprofit or faith-based organizations for at-risk youth and community involvement in Manatee, Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties ($1 million Senate, $1.5 million House).
A full accounting -- and defining -- of member projects is subjective. But an initial analysis of the Senate budget reveals about $201 million in member projects and budget line items that steer money to specific causes or groups. The House has about $117 million of the items -- almost half for the cost of the Miami Port dredging project.
Include the college and university buildings that lawmakers want to approve, and the amount of member projects would be even higher.
The Allapattah appropriation wasn’t inserted in the budget by the area’s state Senator, Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. Instead, a Stuart Republican, Joe Negron, steered the money to the center at a March 31 budget committee meeting. He sponsored three other amendments giving $300,000 to the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers; $500,000 for Sarasota’s Loveland Center for the developmentally disabled; $500,000 for the Dan Marino Foundation for autism in Broward County.
Negron pointed out that his spending items went to good causes and were relatively small. When the speaker and president allocate the millions and billions for the five major sections of the budget, there’s always a few million left over for local projects.
Sometimes, money is taken off the top for leadership priorities.
In the Senate, budget chairman J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales is once again trying to steer money to the University of South Florida polytechnic campus, a pet project of his for regional development in and around his district. The House allocates less than $440,000 to the project, less than a quarter of the $1.9 million he seeks.
It’s common wisdom in the Legislature that a lawmaker who wants something can be leveraged by others who hold their project hostage. But Alexander says that won’t happen to him. “I’m prepared to let it go,” said Alexander, who last year watched former Gov. Charlie Crist veto $46 million for USF.
This year, Gov. Rick Scott has pledged to get rid of member projects.
Alexander’s counterpart in the House, Denise Grimsley of Sebring, has proposed a budget that helps her district with $5 million for a Glades County emergency operations center, $850,000 for Glades wastewater improvements, $400,000 for North LaBelle drainage improvements and $436,000 for a Labelle city wharf project.
Grimsley said the Glades wastewater and Labelle wharf projects tie into the Caloosahatchee and, therefore, the Everglades. “We’re all concerned about the restoration of the Everglades,” she said.
Sometimes, it’s not easy to identify a patron lawmaker for an item. The chairman for the House criminal-justice budget committee, Plant City Republican Rich Glorioso, said he wasn’t sure how the money for the Orange County prosecution of Casey Anthony wound up in the budget or what it was for.
Speaker Cannon’s office explained the state attorney submitted a detailed list to justify the need for the money.
In the Senate, the chairman of the general-government budget committee, Eustis Republican Alan Hays, said he didn’t know who wrote the language calling for $240,000 worth of orange juice to be passed out at Florida welcome centers.
“It’s not on my radar,” he said.
The House budget has a $250,000 line item that calls on the nonprofit American Bikers Aiming Toward Education of Florida to help with motorcycle safety awareness. That was news to ABATE president James “Doc” Reichenbach, who pointed out the group conducted motorcycle safety awareness last year.
“I guess we did such a good job, they want us to do it again,” he said.