USF-Polytechnic Avoids TaxWatch 'Turkey' Crosshairs
Around the State
State Sen. J.D. Alexander has at least one reason to breathe easier.
Controversial funding for a new university in Lakeland championed by the Lake Wales Republican is not on the annual "turkey" list compiled by Florida TaxWatch. This year, the group is seeking line-item vetoes from the governor for 143 projects worth $150.6 million, ranging from the Brevard Community College Public Safety Institute to a land purchase next to the governor’s mansion and a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami..
TaxWatch, which has been suggesting budget cuts to legislative earmarks since 1983, was particularly opposed to 24 water projects -- such as St. John’s River restoration and city sewer work in Umatilla -- because it says they were approved without proper legislative review.
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Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of TaxWatch, said he expects Gov. Rick Scott to be receptive to many of the group's veto suggestions.
“We believe this helps the governor,” Calabro said during an appearance at the Florida Press Center in Tallahassee on Friday. “We expect him to exercise a lot of fiscal restraint for the taxpayers’ hard-earned money.”
While Calabro said the organization doesn’t generally support the addition of new state universities, the split of USF-Polytechnic in Lakeland into an independent campus was not included on the list because it went through the Legislature’s proper budget review. Also, the money for the new campus would have been allocated to the campus regardless of the planned split.
The label “turkey” isn’t based upon the merit of the project, but on whether the project received the proper review by the Legislature to be included in the budget, Calabro said.
“Something that comes out of legislation, we’re not going to call a turkey,” said Kurt Wenner, vice president of tax research for TaxWatch. “The money that is actually in there for Polytechnic, a lot of that would have been in there whether it was the University of South Florida-Polytechnic or the new university.”
Calabro noted that Alexander contacted TaxWatch to discuss the project but said his group is concerned the university will eventually require additional costs.
"We now have 22 community colleges and full state colleges and universities, and in the 30 years I've been involved in this I've seen a lot of proliferation of quantity over quality," Calabro said. "I do understand, I respect the need for, or the desire for, a university dedicated to science, technology, engineering mathematics and, ultimately, medicine, but I recall that was some of the discussion of Gulf Coast University."
Alexander has pushed the 12th university as a means to concentrate courses in science, technology, engineering and math majors that are now seen by state leaders as the best means to create graduates into emerging biotech and life science fields.
A year ago, among Scott's $615 million slashed from the budget was $180.9 million for programs TaxWatch had identified as turkeys.
In addition to the 143 projects listed as turkeys in the $70 billion budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, 16 economic development projects, worth $21.3 million, are not listed as turkeys but are deemed questionable.
Wenner said they have been listed for further consideration to determine if they will create jobs or economic growth because they were reviewed by at least one of the legislative chambers.
“We struggled with a lot of them,” Wenner said. “The No. 1 focus of the governor and the Legislature has been on job creation. So we had to provide some legislative discretion. We allowed anything that appeared in one or the other budgets.”
The number of earmarks this year is the most since 2007, when 505 were made.
Calabro said the number of earmarks matters less upon the revenue available than an acceptance by leadership in the chambers to allow individual projects into the budget.
In 2007, former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed 301 items identified by TaxWatch as turkeys.
The next year, when the number of identified turkeys fell to 132, Crist vetoed only one of the projects.
The list highlights projects that the Tallahassee-based outfit says did not go through a proper legislative review process, with many of the projects added during the budget conferencing process between the two chambers.
Review the list here.
The top items targeted by TaxWatch are:
- $14 million, Brevard Community College Public Safety Institute. Vetoed last year.
- $10 million, economic development commission of Florida’s Space Coast. Added in conference.
- $6.9 million, University of South Florida’s Hearth Health Institute. Added in conference.
- $4.5 million, Tallahassee Community College, New Wakulla Environmental Institute. Was not in the college’s capital improvement plan.
- $5 million, Mount Sinai Medical Center emergency power/infrastructure for teaching hospital on barrier island.
- $4 million, South Florida Water Management District flood mitigation inventory and implementation plan. Added late in conference.
- $5.6 million, St. Johns River restoration.
- $5 million, Seaport grants to repair bulkheads.
- $5 million, Glade County emergency operations center construction. Vetoed last year.
- $5 million, improvements to the Miami Design District in enterprise zone. Added in conference. Requires 50 percent match.
- $2.5 million, The Grove purchase, land next to the governor’s mansion, Tallahassee. Added in conference.
Reach Jim Turner at email@example.com or at (772) 215-9889.