[UPDATE] TaxWatch: $124 Million in College, University Budget Turkeys

By: Lilly Rockwell and Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida;Jill Chandler Email
By: Lilly Rockwell and Michael Peltier, The News Service of Florida;Jill Chandler Email

Tallahassee, Florida May 27, 2011 4:56pm --

Construction is underway at Florida State's Applied Sciences building, at least for now.

The building is 80 - 85 % complete, but money to fund the rest of the project was vetoed by Governor Scott on Thursday.

FSU needs $6 million more in state P.E.C.O. funds to finish the job.

We talked to construction workers on site, and they say they had no idea funds had been cut.

Tallahassee, Florida May 26, 2011 5:24pm--

Governor Scott vetoed 6 million dollars in funding for FSU's Applied Science Building. The project was one of many university projects on Florida Taxwatch's "turkey" list. The Applied Science building is already 80- 85%complete.

John Carnaghi is the Vice President of Finance and Administration he said, "Well ours is near completion. Which simply means if in fact the Governor accepts the recommendation of Taxwatch ... we're going to have a nice building that we're not going to finish. It will sit there as a monument to the failure of our getting these last P.E.C.O. dollars."

Governor Scott vetoed $615 million in special interest dollars. He is asking house and senate leaders to put children first and redirect those funds into K - 12 classrooms.

Tallahassee, Florida, May 25, 2011 5:52 pm. --

Florida Tax Watch is out with their 2011 "turkey" list for P.E.C.O funds. That's funding for public universities to build and renovate on campus.

Gary Yordon is a political consultant. He said, "Turkeys are things that didn't necessary go through the whole process. A turkey by itself could be a good thing or a bad thing."

The Board of Governors told universities they would get no P.E.C.O. funds in this tight budget year. That left the potential money for the schools off Florida lawmakers' radar.

FSU Vice President of Finance and Administration John Carnaghi said, "All P.E.C.O. projects were dropped from the list. We had nothing to submit because of this directive."

In a nutshell, Taxwatch says while state agencies are being forced to cut vital programs, dollars for fancy new buildings and upgraded old ones need to be looked at thoroughly.

One of the locations that is on the "turkey list" is Florida State's Applied Sciences Building, but even FSU is confused as to why it's on the list.

The state budget includes $6 million dollars for the building's continued construction.

John Carnaghi said, "It's probably 80-85% completed... to see it appear on the turkey list was quite surprising."

While Taxwatch does call FSU's Applied Sciences Building a worthwhile project the group says it's all about the integrity of the budget process.

The money for FSU is not final. Governor Scott could still veto the budget item.
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Read below for a full statement from Taxwatch regarding FSU's building on the "turkey" list:

We have two major requirements for University and College constructions projects to avoid being on our turkey list. One is that it be on the approved first year list by the Board of Governors or the Division of Colleges. The other is that it was not added to the budget in conference, meaning that only a few legislators get to make the decision on appropriating money. The FSU projects was on the approved list, however, it was added in conference.

Making the decision on funding these problems even more difficult is the issue of bonding. Heading into session, it was thought there was no bonding capacity available. The Legislature made some change to law which allowed for more bonding, which may not have been the most prudent decision. The state has already exceeded its bonding cap for all bond programs, so issuing additional debt is a questionable action.

Ultimately, we chose to not put projects that met our historical criteria mentioned above on our turkey list. Everything, else made the list, including the FSU projects which appears to be a worthwhile project.

It must be noted that the turkey label does not mean the item is wasteful or not a good project. It is all about the integrity of the budget process.

Kurt Wenner
VP of Tax Research
Florida TaxWatch
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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 25, 2011 -

Despite agonizing over deep cuts to education and health care, lawmakers found room in the state’s nearly $70 billion budget to slip in $203 million in questionable member projects, the largest amount in four years, according to an annual analysis by Florida TaxWatch.

The biggest beneficiary of this increase in member projects, known in Capitol parlance as “turkeys,” are colleges and universities, which scored $124 million in funding for 34 construction projects and other programs in ways that don’t fit what TaxWatch considers the standard budget process.

State universities and colleges defend the budget items identified by TaxWatch as legitimate expenditures that were vetted by their local boards, such as renovating decades-old classroom buildings or providing needed classroom space.

One lawmaker joined in the defense of the budget Tuesday, delivering a blistering critique of the TaxWatch report. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, called it a “media gimmick,” that mistakenly gives too much credence to the governor’s limited budget authority.

“Deference to the executive branch is entirely misplaced,” said Negron said in a statement. “Under the Florida Constitution, the Legislature has the exclusive authority to budget.”

TaxWatch, a conservative tax policy advocacy group, issued its annual recommendation of spending items that should be vetoed on Tuesday ahead of Gov. Rick Scott’s reported plans to sign the budget on Thursday.

“In one of the toughest budget years on record, our leaders should have been more disciplined and consistent with taxpayer money as Florida families are forced to be with their budgets,” said TaxWatch head Dominic Calabro.

Scott has said he will find “additional savings” in the budget. Colleges and universities are fearful that he will target their projects and are lobbying to save them from his veto pen, saying many will create jobs.

“TaxWatch is on the right track,” said Scott spokesman Lane Wright. “There are far too many tax dollars in this budget that could be put towards more important priorities.” Wright said the budget turkeys could be put to better use on overall education funding rather than “shipping it off to special interest earmarks.”

Tax Watch said it identified projects that did not receive a full vetting by the Legislature or were not formally requested by the agency or organization that it benefits. TaxWatch also said it was concerned that more college and university construction projects that use bond funding will jeopardize the state’s bond rating.

Negron defended the budget process as open and transparent, saying the budget conference process at the end of the session, when the House and Senate negotiate over their separate budgets is “meaningful” – not simply a way to slip in spending items.

It’s not uncommon for governors to veto spending projects approved by the Legislature in order to claim credit for being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. But turkeys remain popular for lawmakers as a way to prove their worth to local voters, snagging dollars that benefit projects in their home district.

Most of the items TaxWatch identified for colleges and universities focused on construction or renovation projects funded by the bond program PECO, or Public Education Capital Outlay.

TaxWatch targeted for veto the renovation and construction of buildings worth $19 million to the University of Central Florida. These projects were flagged for either not being on the Board of Governor’s priority list or for being added late in the budget negotiation process. Lobbyist Daniel Holsenbeck defended the projects as legitimate needs that were vetted and approved by the university’s board.

“We vetted them as thoroughly and publicly as we can,” Holsenbeck said. “Ultimately it is the Legislature’s discretion as to how they create the budget and appropriate items.”

Given its booming student population, Holsenbeck said the university wants to build more classroom space. The budget includes $5.2 million to go towards the construction of a new classroom building as well as about $7.5 million for the renovation of two buildings, one of which was first built in 1968.

“I don’t have anything to be ashamed of with these projects,” Holsenbeck said.

TaxWatch also targeted community and state colleges for their earmark list. Pasco Hernando Community College would receive $6.9 million in the budget for the “Wesley Chapel Center” at a new campus. TaxWatch flagged it because it was added late in the budget process, preventing it from a full vetting by the Legislature. Wesley Chapel happens to be home to Republican House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford.

Brevard Community College stands to receive $7.5 million in the budget for a new $26 million building that provides a centralized location for the school’s fire fighting, law enforcement and criminal justice programs. Tax Watch called this a “turkey” because it was not requested by the Florida College System.

Some of the projects on the Tax Watch list this year were vetoed last year by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Last year, Crist vetoed $35 million to start work on the new University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland and another $10 million for a new pharmacy school there. Those projects resurfaced in the budget this year, with the pharmacy school appearing on the Tax Watch list.

Universities and colleges also defended the process that led to so many projects being added to the budget at the last minute. The House and Senate did not determine the amount of dollars available for PECO projects until near the end of budget negotiations. At that point, the Legislature managed to more than double the amount of available PECO dollars by adding $160 million to the pool, opening the window for last-minute additions.

Universities and state colleges weren’t the only areas that caught the eye of TaxWatch.

Nearly $80 million in other programs and projects were highlighted by the group. One hefty item is the $4 million set aside for an emergency operations center in Glades County, a project that TaxWatch said was a local project that was not competitively bid.

The region would also benefit from $ 1.7 million in storm water programs for LaBelle and greater Glades County. Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, chairman of the House budget committee, has said the projects are linked to overall Everglades restoration efforts.

Also on the TaxWatch list is the Duval County Wounded Warrior Project, which would get $3.2 million in general revenue. TaxWatch said the project hasn't historically gotten any government money.

But it appears unlikely that Scott would veto that line item - the Wounded Warrior Project is one of his favorites. Extra money from Scott's inaugural celebration went to the program in Jacksonville.

Several community groups that do social work were singled out by TaxWatch for improperly included earmarks. Among those were groups like the Gould’s Coalition of Ministries and Lay People, which provides services, mostly to migrant workers, in south Miami-Dade County.

A trio of Central Florida redevelopment projects in Orange and Osceola Counties totaling $4.6 million were flagged as a member request that was not requested by the governor or any agency.

TaxWatch also targeted $1 million from general revenue funds to develop a pilot program to provide jobs for at-risk youth in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Manatee counties. The request has been tagged before by the group for lacking adequate performance standards.

The group also suggested a veto for a $12 million facility for homeless veterans in Brevard County.

Local governments weren’t the only targets. A $4 million appropriation within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to promote precision agriculture caught TaxWatch’s gaze.

The program uses satellites and geographic information systems to help farmers collect data about their fields, allowing them to surgically irrigate, apply fertilize or apply pesticides to crops.

The group said the project was neither asked for nor recommended by Scott.


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