Florida TaxWatch chief Dominic Calabro .Credit: State Library and Archives of Florida
Florida TaxWatch, an independent budget watchdog organization, has identified more than $157.5 million in so-called “budget turkeys” that it says the Legislature included outside the formal rules within its $101.5 billion budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year.
The group urged Gov. Ron DeSantis to veto these projects because they did not receive proper scrutiny during budget negotiations.
“Every dollar spent by the Legislature deserves to go through the thoughtful, appropriate process,” Dominic Calabro, president and CEO for TaxWatch, said Monday during a press conference, adding that it’s “always disappointing” when large sums of money is accrued “without scrutiny that we believe it truly deserves.”
Florida TaxWatch is a nonprofit research institute concerned with how Florida taxpayer dollars are used by state and local government. To do this, TaxWatch releases an annual report, called the Budget Turkey Watch Report.
The report defines budget turkeys as: “items, usually local member projects, placed in individual line-items or accompanying provisio language that are added to the final appropriations bill without being fully scrutinized and subjected to the budget process.”
For the new budget for the fiscal year beginning on July 1, TaxWatch said it has identified 116 turkeys (while cautioning that it makes no judgement about the worthiness of a project, only about the lack of transparency). The organization also questions whether some of these projects should be funded by the state when local or private resources might be more appropriate.
For example, the budget bill allocates $9.5 million to construct a two-lane road for Polk County, $9 million for erosion repairs on a road in Nassau County; and nearly $5 million dollars for safety improvements and upgrades for a roadway in Indian River County.
Another item that caught TaxWatch’s attention was $8 million assigned for Florida manatee habitat restoration.
The report notes that Florida’s manatee population is in crisis, but also that the federal government is still investigating why they are dying at a higher rate than normal. TaxWatch recommends that DeSantis “examine whether the plan for using these dollars meshes with the federal investigation, as well as the state’s current restoration plans for springs … and other water resources.”
While Florida lawmakers were building the 2021-22 fiscal budget, funds from the federal government helped the state rebound faster than expected following the economic damage from COVID-19.
At the start of the pandemic, TaxWatch recommended that DeSantis make severe cuts to local projects and other initiatives, even recommending postponement of a long awaited base salary raise for teachers.
TaxWatch notes in the report that $5.8 billion from the federal CARES act under former U.S. President Donald Trump kept the state from a budget shortfall in 2019-20. Other federal aid continued the support — $6.7 billion through the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Fund and $9.8 billion for education and child care through the American Rescue Plan passed under President Joe Biden.
TasWatch noted that, while it has identified plenty of turkeys in the final budget, it could have been far worse.
“[The Legislature] did a really darn good job — they just could have done better,” Calabro said.
DeSantis will need to evaluate and sign the 2021-22 budget before the next fiscal year begins on July 1.
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