State budget transparency? How bringing home the bacon can become a sneaky legislative maneuver

A series of road projects in Manatee County called the "44th Ave East Extension Projects" will get $10 million from the 2020-21 state budget, even though a key senator pushing the project isn't from the legislative district and his constituents live across the state from Manatee County. Credit: Manatee County Capital Improvement Plan.

Like many lawmakers who work to bring home the bacon for constituents, State Sen. Travis Hutson pushed for $10 million in the new state budget for Manatee County road projects.

He secured the funding, even as Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed hundreds of other local projects in the 2020-21 budget.

However, Hutson doesn’t represent Manatee County. He lives on the Atlantic side of Florida, representing Flagler and St. Johns counties and the north part of Volusia in the Legislature. His constituents won’t be using that $10 million.

Instead, those dollars will go to the Gulf side of Florida, where Senate President Bill Galvano represents Manatee County and a part of Hillsborough.

The legislative maneuvering raises questions about the lack of transparency in the budget process, giving the impression that lawmakers are working outside the interests of their own constituents.

Also at issue is whether lawmakers are following the rules designed to promote openness and ensure the public understands where all the money is going.

Every year, lawmakers work to get tens of thousands or millions of dollars into the state budget to secure projects for their constituents.

The Legislature launched a process requiring lawmakers to fill out a form, explaining their projects and the money needed. House members file a bill for their projects. Senators, essentially, “sponsor” a local project and use a “Senate Form” to document the information. Typically, both a House member and a senator work together to get a project into the budget.

But, Galvano didn’t have his name attached to any local projects in the state budget because of a tradition related to top legislative leaders, according to an aide.

Katie Betta, a spokesperson for Galvano, said in an email to the Florida Phoenix that “Senate President Galvano has followed the long-standing tradition of the Senate, which has been that the Senate President does not file bills or local funding requests.”

The Phoenix found that other legislative leaders also have not filed documentation for local projects this year.

Those include House Speaker Jose Oliva and two state representatives who are scheduled to be House Speakers: Chris Sprowls and Paul Renner. State Rep. Travis Cummings, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, also did not show documentation of local projects, the Phoenix found.

But that doesn’t mean those lawmakers didn’t get anything into the state budget for their constituents.

Hutson filed a project requesting $10 million for the 44th Avenue East Extension, according to legislative documents. A state House representative, Tommy Gregory, filed a similar request for the $10 million. Gregory represents parts of Manatee and Sarasota.

Neither of the lawmakers responded to the Florida Phoenix, which contacted both men at least two times.

The Manatee project’s form explains that this will be “a four-lane divided roadway with sidewalks, bike lanes/multi-use path, street lighting, an overpass over I-75, and a crossing over a reclaimed water storage lake. This section will include four 12-foot lanes, a 22-foot median, curb and gutter, four-foot bike lanes, and five-foot sidewalks in each direction.”

Hutson is not the only senator sponsoring local projects in a different district than their own.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican representing Nassau County and part of Duval County,  filed a project for Manatee County.

He filed a $5 million project for the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM), a Clinic Based Health Service Outreach in Bradenton.

“Sen. Galvano asked me to run the project on his behalf, and that’s what I did…He has so much to do, so much to run, so much to worry about — that it’s an honor when he calls and says, ‘I need help with this,’” Bean told the Phoenix in an interview.

Bean says his involvement showcases the teamwork within the Senate and is a testament to Sen. President Galvano’s concern for his constituents in Manatee County — by ensuring projects are filed for the annual budget even if Galvano is unable to do it himself.

When asked if this takes time away from representing his own constituents, Bean was confident in the ability to share attention between the projects in his districts as well as Galvano’s project in Manatee County.

“I am a multitasker,” said Bean. “That’s why I have a yellow pad, I have a smartphone, and I have a really great team — we utilize everybody to keep track of everything.”

In another case, Rep. Elizabeth Anne Fetterhoff, who represents a part of Volusia County, said she filed a $4 million local project in Miami-Dade, rather than in her own district.

She said she took interest in the Miami-Dade project after working on a mental health bill.

“I made the request for funding the Miami Center for Mental Health and Recovery because I am passionate about mental health on a statewide scale. This project came to my attention after working with Judge [Steven] Leifman, out of Miami, on my other bill, HB 293, Certain Defendants with Mental Illness,” Fetterhoff said in a written statement to the Florida Phoenix.

DeSantis vetoed that project.

“Unfortunately, everything can’t be funded, but we can continue to fight for this project next year,” Fetterhoff said in the written statement.

In other transparency issues, local projects turned up in the state budget with no formal documentation, the Phoenix found.

By the time the state House and Senate approved the 2020-21 budget in March, the Bradford County Fair Association had made it into the lengthy document with an amount of $500,000.

However, there wasn’t a lawmaker involved as a sponsor for the project or a form to explain to the public why the money was wanted or needed.

DeSantis vetoed the Bradford fair project.

The governor also vetoed the Hernando County Fair Association ($424,065), a project with no sponsor or form; the Northeast Florida Fair Association ($250,000), and the Putnam County Fair Association ($750,000), also with no sponsor or form that would allow the public to understand why a project was worthy to be in the state budget of Florida.

In addition, the new state budget includes several projects labeled “recurring base appropriations projects” that show only a title.

While those projects may be worthwhile, it’s not clear if there’s competition for the dollars or any requirements for performance to ensure the project is necessary.

A $200,000 human services project in the state budget is simply listed as “Here’s Help.”

Another project is listed as “Alliance for Aging, Inc.,” with an amount of $152,626.

A criminal justice project is listed simply as “Community Coalition, Inc.,” with an amount of $950,000.

None of these projects were vetoed by the governor.

Florida Phoenix editor Diane Rado contributed to this report.