By the time lawmakers got to town for the spring legislative session in March, the wheels were already in motion to create a giant wish list – sort of like a kid’s list for Santa but way more expensive.
The list in the state Capitol had to do with lawmakers requesting money to send home to their constituents for local projects, everything from museums and soccer fields to food banks, new school buildings, community centers and wastewater treatment facilities – all with a big price tag.
Key lawmakers began negotiating this week over which local projects will ultimately get funding in the state budget, but the process raises questions about how much state money should be used for pet projects that could be financed by local governments.
After all, Floridians have statewide needs in health care, public education, transportation and the environment, and the state budget is meant to prioritize state policies and cater to all Floridians.
As the legislative session began in March, the state House wish list ballooned to 1,630 local projects adding up to nearly $3.7-billion dollars. The Senate list included 1,673 projects adding up to $3.5-billion, state records show.
Since then, hundreds of projects didn’t make the cut as lawmakers began building the state budget for 2019-20. But about 1,000 local projects remain in both the House and Senate, all considered worthy enough to get state funding.
A Florida Phoenix review of hundreds of pages of budget documents found that there isn’t an even playing field when it comes to getting funding for local projects, mostly because Republicans are in the majority in both chambers. In addition, lawmakers don’t have to get involved in a competitive process – they can simply choose a nonprofit or other entity to handle the local project.
And some people may not know that, in most cases, lobbyists get involved in pushing a local project along with the lawmaker. That typically means compensation for the lobbyists.
Kurt Wenner is a vice president of research at Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog in the state capital that has been tracking the spending on local projects for many years.
His group uses the term “turkeys” to describe certain pet projects. Others have used terms such as pork barrel projects. (The state House refers to “Appropriations Project Bills,” and the Senate uses the term “Local Funding Initiative Request.”)
That said, Wenner believes that, “My personal feeling is that the vast majority of these projects, particularly those that get funded, are decent projects. There are people who are really trying to do something and they’ve asked the Legislature for help.
“It’s all about priorities and most of these things are legitimate, reasonable things to do. The question is, should the state be doing it, or should it be local government?”
Wenner also believes there should be a competitive process when it comes to choosing who will be in charge of the local project, including which local officials and nonprofits.
All of this will be new for Gov. Ron DeSantis, who will be reviewing the local projects for the first time when he get his first state budget from the Legislature.
Will he be heavy-handed – or not — about vetoing local projects?
Like former Republican Gov. Rick Scott, DeSantis, will be looking carefully at each individual project, said Wenner. If there’s a financial return for taxpayers, the governor is likely to let the project stay in the budget. But Scott was not always consistent, Wenner recalled. “Sometimes he had a very heavy pen, and sometimes he didn’t.
Over the years, lawmakers have made the process relating to local projects far more transparent. They fill out forms outlining their project — how much will it cost; who will be the key people in charge; whether there’s a lobbyist involved and other details.
Republican State Sen. Rob Bradley, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, talked earlier this week about the negotiations process leading to the final 2019-20 state budget, and he mentioned local projects. He represents several central North Florida counties.
“We are being as transparent as we’ve ever been in this process,” Bradley said. “I think every year we get better and better. There’s no midnight dumps of projects that have never been vetted or seen before. That is not allowed in the rules any more.”
When it comes to local projects, the negotiations might be tougher this year because the Senate has more projects compared to the House that have been deemed worthy of state funding.
As negotiations continue with the state budget, the Senate has more than 600 local projects while the House has fewer than 400. The Senate projects add up to almost $300-million, while the House projects add up to around $170-million, budget records show.
A Phoenix analysis looked more closely at the Senate figures because the numbers were so much higher than the House. Overall, the Senate projects include money for charter schools and private schools, as well as colleges and universities in need of renovation and building projects. The projects also include transportation and health-related initiatives.
The analysis shows that senators with the most local project amounts are: Republican Sens. Aaron Bean, of Nassau and Duval counties; Kelli Stargel, of Lake and Polk counties; Travis Hutson, of Flagler, St. Johns and Volusia counties; Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, of North Florida counties, including the state capital, and Joe Gruters, of Sarasota and Charlotte counties. Gruters also is the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Said Wenner: “There’s a lot of political stuff that goes on – that’s a thing about member (lawmakers’) local projects. They are bargaining chips.”