When Florida TaxWatch unveiled its 2014 Budget Turkey Report recently, it wheeled out a new prop, Turkey Tina. Perhaps the lanky old Turkey Tom ruffled a few too many feathers.
After TaxWatch published its list of questionable legislative expenditures last year, Senate budget chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, called it “a tired media gimmick” and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, roared, “It’s little wonder that TaxWatch is irrelevant 364 days a year.”
As Shakespeare might put it, the senators “doth protest too much, me thinks.”
Undeterred, for the 28th year, TaxWatch has again indentified turkeys: $120 million worth.
What is a turkey? As governor, Jeb Bush identified turkeys as projects that benefit a special interest but not the state as a whole. But TaxWatch takes pains to say that turkeys are not necessarily local or bad. Its criteria for a turkey are that it avoids the established selection process, is inserted into the budget during conference committee meetings or comes from inappropriate trust funds.
It’s the process, not the project.
Five area projects made the list: In Leon County, $100,000 each for the Emergency Services Center for the Homeless and Camps for Champions; in Jefferson County, $200,000 for the courthouse; and in Wakulla County, $580,000 from trust funds for a Shell Point boat launch and $1.5 million from trust funds for dredging at Shell Point, Spring Creek and Mashes Sands.
The $120 million total is less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the $77.1 billion budget. But consider what $120 million could buy: 1,560 new positions in the overburdened state court system or, of particular note here, a$1,048 raise for each of the state’s 114,481 state employees (most of whom got no raise this year).
As part of its report, TaxWatch looked at the budget conference process, which Mr. Negron defended so vociferously last year. TaxWatch sent an observer to every conference committee meeting. It found that most meetings lasted less than 20 minutes, with no questions or debate. Meetings were held at inconvenient times, materials often were not made available to the public until after meetings began, and late supplemental funding lists contained few details and were not read aloud.
You can’t have government in the sunshine if the process remains opaque. Whether to veto these turkeys is up to Gov. Rick Scott. He can judge them on their merits.
But as far as the open process goes, the Legislature can do better.