How do lawmakers get local pet projects in the state budget? It isn’t easy or always transparent

By: - February 14, 2022 7:00 am
Florida Capitol

The Historic Capitol, foreground, and Florida Capitol buildings. Photo Colin Hackley

When lawmakers came to the Capitol in January for the 2022 legislative session, their annual wish list was ballooning with billions of dollars for pet projects that, if approved, could be a goldmine for local constituents.

Legislators hoped to slip in as many local projects as possible in the overall 2022-23 state budget for Florida.

It’s a process that’s been going on for years in the Legislature, raising questions about how much state money should be used for the pet projects that could be financed by local governments.

And critics say local projects may not even be necessary given that the state budget is designed for statewide priorities and policies catering to all Floridians, such as health care, public education, transportation and the environment.

The 2022-23 state budget is expected to exceed $100 billion, and a small part of that budget would be dollars for local projects that are important to constituents across Florida, particularly in a campaign year.

Cash. Credit: Svetl.
Royalty-free
Collection:
iStock / Getty Images Plus.

By early February, the Florida Senate’s proposed local project list was at a whopping $3.87 billion for 1,788 projects, everything from local street, bridge and bike path improvements to veterans programs, county jail improvements and much larger construction projects, appropriations data show.

The state House list wasn’t nearly as large, but ended up at $2.62 billion for 1,729 projects, based on appropriations data that the Florida Phoenix totaled.

The Phoenix asked about the $3.87 billion, and Senate President spokeswoman Katherine Betta said in an email that “last year was a bit of an anomaly given the pandemic.”

“In our view, some of what you are seeing is a reflection of fewer (Senate) forms (for local projects) being filed last year,” Betta said. “We were certainly expecting a higher amount this year because revenues have drastically improved, and also due to the availability of federal pandemic relief funds, which are not yet appropriated in the Senate budget.

“President (Wilton) Simpson certainly supports the efforts of senators to bring forward the needs of their local communities, and our appropriations committees evaluate those needs, just as they evaluate requests from state agencies and other entities who receive funding from the state budget.”

By last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee that helps craft the state budget had already reduced the number of local projects that would be in the Senate’s proposed budget.

The figure showed about 800 local projects in the Senate’s budget document, rather than the initial 1,788 projects.  The proposed price tag of $3.87 billion was no longer the case. About $1.5 billion is now in the Senate’s budget for local projects, according to a Phoenix analysis.

The Senate and House will be negotiating to build the final budget by the end of the legislative session in March, and the local projects are certain to be in the mix.

That said, many residents may not know about the local projects that get added annually into the state budget. The local projects are often described as pet projects, turkeys, pork-barrel projects and the phrase, “bringing home the bacon.”

The House and Senate have created a process to provide details for the local projects.

The Senate has a “Local Funding Initiative Request Form” that usually involves several pages and explains the project and funding.  The House has a similar format, called “Appropriations Project Request,” and also has several pages of descriptions and explanations to support local projects.

However, at the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, the local projects’ issue was not entirely transparent and Floridians would not likely understand what was happening.

Senators first introduced budget highlights in key areas of the Senate’s version of the 2022-23 state budget, such as public education, health and human services, state prisons and the environment.

Nothing was said about the local projects.

State Sen. Kelli Stargel. Credit: Florida Senate.

Then, State Sen. Kelli Stargel, chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, explained to colleagues that there were about 100 amendments related to the Senate’s state budget version and they would be voted on in a consent agenda that would involve a single vote.

For the most part, it wasn’t clear that the amendments were actually more local projects, and that lawmakers wanted to try to get them into the Senate’s state budget.

The committee simply named the sponsor of the “amendment” and the amendment bar code, but no further details.

The committee approved the 100 or so amendments in a single vote.

Stargel said the consent agenda process was a more efficient way to handle the situation.

She did mention at the committee meeting that for those who might be watching the Senate Appropriations Committee from other parts of Florida, that “all of these amendments have a story.” (The term local project was not used.)

If people wanted to read such a story, Stargel said they could go online at www.flsenate.gov. The bill number for the Senate’s budget is SB 2500 and it includes some 100 “amendments” that were about local projects.

At Florida Taxwatch, described as an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit taxpayer research institute, president and CEO Dominic M. Calabro remains concerned about transparency when it comes to the local projects. He’s been following the issue for several years and has been scrutinizing so-called Budget Turkeys, meaning local member projects.

Calabro said in an interview with the Phoenix that the local member projects are not “inherently turkeys,” but they need to be vetted and connected to state needs and state priorities.

Florida’s state budget “is supposed to be a statewide budget,” Calabro said. “And it’s not if local projects don’t have any connection to the state. The key is – connect them.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Diane Rado
Diane Rado

Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

MORE FROM AUTHOR