Marion projects on TaxWatch’s turkeys list
TALLAHASSEE – In a sign of how Florida’s economic outlook has changed over the past year, Florida TaxWatch isn’t emphatically calling for Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto all of the “turkeys” it has identified in a record spending plan passed by lawmakers.
With the surprisingly flush $101.5 billion budget proposal expected to formally go to DeSantis soon, TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said May 24 the 116 turkeys on his group’s annual list are “strong suggestions” for vetoes. The turkeys, a Tallahassee term for questionable spending items, total $157.5 million.
Two Marion County projects made this year’s list including $7.8 million to renovate the College of Central Florida’s gym to a nursing school facility. The gym renovation plans come after the Legislature failed to fund a $43 million project to build a health science building at the college. The new construction was approved in 2017, but only $6 million was apportioned in the last four budget cycles. The planned four-story building would have encompassed nursing, emergency medical services, physical therapy and surgical support programs.
The 13,000-square-foot gym is no longer used for athletics after the college ended its basketball and volleyball programs in 2020.
TaxWatch flagged the CF project, because it was not on the list of highest priority construction projects for state colleges.
The list also included $1 million set aside for the Southwest 44th Avenue expansion. The road would connect State Road 200 to US Highway 27 with the northern extension of the Southwest 42nd Street flyover. The plan has been stagnant since for more than a decade after it was derailed by the 2008 great recession. TaxWatch pointed out that the project was not on the annual FDOT Work Program list.
The $1 million was in last year’s budget, but DeSantis vetoed the item.
The $8.8 million identified by TaxWatch was among more than $11 million included in the budget for Marion County projects.
The full report is available at floridataxwatch.org
Last year, as the state’s economy was hammered by the COVID-19 pandemic, TaxWatch argued for the governor to cut everything on its list of 180 projects that made the budget. Generally, turkeys are projects put into the budget without proper public oversight or that exceed publicly proposed amounts.
“Last year, we said absolutely (veto), because of the pandemic,” Calabro said. “He’s got a little bit of leeway here.”
The budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year, which lawmakers approved April 30, includes just under 700 line items pitched by individual lawmakers. Those items would provide nearly $550 million for local projects and organizations.
Senators proposed 1,135 different projects that would have required $1.46 billion to fully fund. House members submitted 1,060 funding requests that totaled $1.17 billion.
Projects that made it into the final budget range from $15,000 for a Bascom Museum and Cultural Center renovation project in Jackson County to $25 million for the Pasco-Hernando State College Center for Student Success and Community Engagement.
Last year, lawmakers approved more than 750 line items exceeding $400 million. But DeSantis, who has line-item veto power, eliminated $264 million of the “member” projects. Overall, he slashed $1 billion from the budget, mostly to address anticipated revenue shortfalls caused by the pandemic.
Requests were down for this year’s legislative session as Republicans leaders initially warned of likely budget cuts because of the pandemic. But the proposed budget for the upcoming year wound up being a record $101.5 billion because of a huge infusion of federal money and rebounding state tax revenues.
Calabro credited state lawmakers for doing a “good” job with the billions in federal relief that have helped bolster the state’s finances during the past year.
“I think Florida’s been a better steward of those tax dollars, the federal funds … than other states,” Calabro said.
In putting together its annual turkey list, the non-profit TaxWatch says it doesn’t judge the merits of projects. Instead, it looks at whether projects circumvented a public review process or were inserted into the budget during conference committee negotiations.
The Ocala Gazette contributed to this report.