TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) – Florida TaxWatch on Thursday released a list of 166 “turkeys” in a recently passed state budget, but suggested Governor Ron DeSantis’ office should give more scrutiny to the 1,221 local projects than lawmakers have put in the spending plan file.
With the state brimming with cash from federal stimulus money and higher-than-expected tax recoveries, TaxWatch officials praised lawmakers for not going as crazy as they could have crafted the $112.1 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But the non-profit group’s list of questionable expenses totaled $281 million. Additionally, TaxWatch executive vice president Tony Carvajal said all of the local projects pushed by individual lawmakers — totaling about $2.8 billion — “deserve further scrutiny.”
“Florida taxpayers have no choice whether or not to pay these taxes,” Carvajal said. “They deserve to have a responsible and transparent allocation of their funds.”
The Legislature passed the budget on March 14 but did not formally send it to DeSantis, who has veto power.
TaxWatch discriminates turkeys based on how spending fits into the budget, rather than trying to assess the economic merits of projects or whether citizens need them.
Among the most high-profile items on the new list was $35 million for what was described as a “youth sports training and tournament complex” in Pasco County.
The complex was added at the end of the budget negotiation process between the Senate and the House as part of an additional or “sprinkled” list of spending items.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that the money would help cover a new spring training facility for the Tampa Bay Rays, although the budget documents did not specifically mention the Rays.
“It’s one of the ones that was taken out of the budget during the conference (negotiations), where both houses agreed there would be nothing in it. The dusting list added it back to $35 million,” said Kurt Wenner, senior vice president of research at TaxWatch. “It actually made our list twice, once because it was added to the sprinkle list and the other because it could have applied for funding through (the Department of Environmental Protection) , through their Parks and Recreation grant.”
George LeMieux, a former U.S. senator who serves as chairman of the board of TaxWatch, said “nuggets are the new turkeys.” He added that the funding requested for local member projects in the coming fiscal year exceeded the overall spending for local projects in the previous five years.
The list released Thursday was 116 items, totaling $157.5 million, highlighted in TaxWatch’s list of turkeys last year. DeSantis ended up vetoing about 150 items of a roughly $100 billion budget for the 2021-22 fiscal year, which ends June 30.
TaxWatch officials praised lawmakers for setting aside nearly $9 billion in reserves in the new budget and creating a separate fund to deal with inflation-related cost increases for state projects. But they said lawmakers will need to consider “growing headwinds,” such as inflation and rising property costs, when crafting future budgets.
“In less than 20 years, the state budget has doubled while Florida’s population hasn’t doubled,” said LeMieux, who also served as former Governor Charlie Crist’s chief of staff. “So legislators going forward will have to be very careful with their spending and not expect to have these 10 and 20 percent increases every year.”
TaxWatch also intends to release recommendations ahead of a special legislative session on property insurance beginning May 23.
“When you look at the cost of what it takes to own and afford a home or to rent in this state, we have critical issues,” Carvajal said. “I don’t even know if the Legislature has an answer on how they’re going to fix this.”
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