State Politics

Four Manatee projects are state budget ‘turkeys,’ says watchdog group

Anna Maria Island Pier reconstruction making progress

Reconstruction is underway on the Anna Maria Island Pier, which lawmakers allocated $285,000 toward. The pier suffered significant damage at the hands of Hurricane Irma in 2017.
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Reconstruction is underway on the Anna Maria Island Pier, which lawmakers allocated $285,000 toward. The pier suffered significant damage at the hands of Hurricane Irma in 2017.

Florida TaxWatch says $133 million should be slashed from the state’s proposed budget, though Gov. Ron DeSantis should employ a relatively “light touch” when wielding his line-item veto pen for the first time.

The business-backed nonprofit group Wednesday highlighted 109 member projects, known in Tallahassee parlance as “turkeys,” which it contends failed to be properly vetted before being inserted into the record $91.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said there isn’t accountability for projects without the public vetting process. Still, he said, the Legislature has gotten better in requiring members to file requests for money to fund projects.

“Overall, we think it’s pretty good,” Calabro said of the spending plan (SB 2500), which has not been formally sent to DeSantis. “We recommend that the governor not do what his predecessors have done in taking a very aggressive veto hand, but a light touch. Not just because of collegiality, but because they really did a good job in principle.”

Four of the “turkeys” hail from Manatee County:

  • $3 million to establish an aircraft mechanic training program at Sarasota Bradenton International Airport. TaxWatch said the project was included as part of a program that needs a more formal selection process. It also would “benefit private businesses,” TaxWatch said.
  • $10 million for an extension of 44th Avenue East; $300,000 for a multi-modal transportation project in Bradenton Beach; and $285,000 for the reconstruction of the Anna Maria City Pier. TaxWatch listed the projects with dozens of other transportation-related projects it says are not part of the Florida Department of Transportation’s work program.

In all, the proposed budget includes about $22 million for Manatee County projects.

Manatee County's road project of the decade, the extension of 44th Avenue East, will take its next step in 2019, when work begins to bridge the Braden River and push east near Interstate 75.

Promotional video provided by SRQ

No Sarasota County projects were listed in the TaxWatch report.

As of Wednesday afternoon, DeSantis had received 123 of the 174 bills approved by the Legislature during this year’s session. He’d signed 80 and vetoed two. DeSantis, who received 41 bills Wednesday, can sign, veto or allow bills to become law without his signature.

After the budget was approved by the Legislature on May 4, DeSantis vowed he was ready to use his veto powers.

“It’s going to be under $91.1 billion when I get through with the budget, don’t worry about that,” DeSantis said during a traditional “sine die” ceremony in the Capitol’s fourth-floor rotunda after lawmakers ended the session.

Former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, vetoed $615 million in spending in 2011, his first year as governor. Last year, in his final year in the governor’s mansion, Scott axed just $64 million from the budget.

The spending items targeted Wednesday by TaxWatch were dominated by transportation projects and ranged from $50,000 that Sen. George Gainer, R-Panama City, wants to restore the Washington County Agriculture Center to $13.3 million sought by Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to widen County Road 491 in Citrus County. The Washington County facility has served as a Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery center following Hurricane Michael.

Other big-ticket “turkeys” on the list included $1 million to restore Centennial Park in Fort Myers; $4.75 million for the Deputy William J. Gentry, Jr. Regional Public Safety Training Center in Highlands County; and $8 million for a workforce housing multi-family apartment complex in Jacksonville’s urban core.

Many of the targeted items were among 237 projects, worth a combined total of nearly $290 million, that were inserted into the budget as part of last-minute supplemental funding as House and Senate leaders negotiated the spending plan.

“Hard-earned taxpayer dollars were spent as almost an afterthought, after all the various budget areas had been cleared out,” TaxWatch Vice President Kurt Wenner said. “So, while the rules have relatively limited the number of turkeys, it has not limited member projects.”

Calabro said his group wants the governor’s office to consider all of the supplemental funding projects, but those on the “turkey” list were more critical for not being vetted during the session.