FL tax watchdog finds $281 million in ‘budget turkeys’ added to 2022-23 budget

‘Should the Legislature be paying for these local things?’

By: - May 2, 2022 7:00 am

Florida TaxWatch Board Chairman and former U.S. Senator George S. LeMieux discusses the 2022 Budget Turkeys report on Apr 28, 2022. Credit: Screenshot/TaxWatch YouTube channel.

A state budget watchdog organization has identified some $281 million in “budget turkeys” in the 2022-23 state budget, defined as items that were not “fully scrutinized and subjected to the budget process.”

Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute, identified 166 appropriation item that qualify as budget turkeys in its annual report, which works to call out budget items that circumvent transparency expected of the state budget process.

The 2022 Budget Turkey report is intended to help Gov. Ron DeSantis consider which line items to veto before he approves the annual budget.

The Legislature approved a $112.1 billion budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 during its 2022 regular session, but has not yet sent it to DeSantis. He has indicated approval for certain line items during press conferences since session ended in mid-March.

“Florida government is awash with money,” George LeMieux, a former U.S. senator now chairman of the TaxWatch board, said at a press conference Thursday.

Given the sheer magnitude of the funds at the Legislature’s disposal, those of us at Florida’s TaxWatch normally thought that there would be a lot of turkeys this year. But the Legislature, frankly, surprised us

– George LeMieux, TaxWatch

“Given the sheer magnitude of the funds at the Legislature’s disposal, those of us at Florida’s TaxWatch normally thought that there would be a lot of turkeys this year. But the Legislature, frankly, surprised us,” LeMieux said.

In a follow-up press release, LeMieux said that, “for us budget turkey hunters, it was a lean year.”

That said, the watchdog group still identified 166 budget turkeys.

What’s a ‘turkey’?

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.”

TaxWatch believes that money appropriated by the Legislature “belongs to the taxpayers of Florida” and so “the process must be transparent and accountable.”

A large portion of the budget turkeys involve local water projects.

The report says: “Every year, this funding includes scores of earmarked local water projects that are submitted as member projects, circumventing formal, competitive selection processes. Although some are spread throughout the Department of Environmental Protection budget, most are grouped in a single line-item simply called ‘Water Projects.'”

The report found 243 projects in this budget category, equating to about $368.4 million. TaxWatch recommends that the Legislature create a formal grant process for these water projects.

One of the largest budget turkeys identified in this section is for Bay County, where $10 million has been earmarked for the “Bay County Military Point Wastewater Treatment Facility/Tyndall Air Force Base Water Reuse” project.

The largest budget turkey in the water projects is $18 million for “Indiantown Wastewater Infrastructure Improvements” for Martin County.

Sports projects

The report identifies several multimillion-dollar sport-based budget items that received additional funds late in the budgeting process.

That includes a $15 million project and a $13.5 project in Pinellas County, as well as a $35 million “Sports Training and Youth Tournament Complex” in Pasco County.

TaxWatch says that those projects should have sought funding through a state grant program.

Of the Pasco sports project, the report says that it is “planned to be used as a new spring training facility for the Tampa Bay Rays, although that is not explicitly stated in the request.”

Other categories with budget turkeys include local parks, trails, and recreation that did not face the standard budgeting process.

This includes a $5 million “Panama City For Regional Parks” project for Bay county and $5 million for “Lakeland’s Se7en Wetlands Educational Center Construction” in Polk County.

The report identifies projects that were initially removed from the budget, but then added back late during House-Senate negotiations, meaning these projects did not face the same scrutiny as other budget items.

Budget items added back during conference committee meetings are called the “sprinkle list.” TaxWatch identified 13 line items on this list, saying that these projects “would not have received funding without being added at the very last minute.”

The watchdog group has qualms over the use of some state funding for local projects, even if those projects went through the proper budgeting process during the session and therefore are not identified as budget turkeys.

Per the report: “There is much to commend in the new budget. But it was also a banner year for many lawmakers wanting to bring home funding for local projects. The new budget contains 1,221 member projects worth $2.8 billion. This compares to the 675 projects funded last year, costing $560 million.”

The report explains further:

“While many of these [local] projects are worthwhile, it is harder to justify the use of state dollars for some of them.”

‘Local responsibilities’

Kurt Wenner, senior vice president of TaxWatch, explained in the Thursday press conference that some projects are “local responsibilities.”

“So, the question is … should the Legislature be paying for these local things?” Wenner said.

“Now there is certainly an argument to be made for some of the fiscally restrained counties that don’t have the property tax placed to maybe pay for some of these stuff. It’s fine if they want to do that,” he said. “We would just like to see a process created to choose and spend a limited amount of money that’s available down there in the best way possible.”

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.