Surplus Creates Push for Hometown Projects
Florida legislators with extra money to spend are trying to steer taxpayer funds to everything from gun ranges and a military museum to a course designed to teach "sexual risk avoidance."
There's $10 million for SkyRise Miami, a planned observation tower that would be the city's tallest building once completed. There's $500,000 for a livestock pavilion in Ocala. There's money to help relocate a lighthouse now at Cape San Blas in the Panhandle.
While legislators have trumpeted their push for tax cuts this year, a projected budget surplus of $1.2 billion also has left the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature with plenty left for hometown projects.
The extra money comes after years when the state's economic slowdown forced Republicans to slash spending and even raise taxes. The House and Senate have passed rival budgets of roughly $75 billion and have until early May to craft a final budget to send to Gov. Rick Scott.
Scott then can use his line-item veto to eliminate individual spending items.
Governor's office emails from last year show that Scott was willing to veto dozens of items, even those pushed by leaders such as House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.
The veto threat, however, hasn't stopped legislators from requesting items.
The Associated Press obtained from the Florida House nearly 600 pages of records containing emails, letters and sometimes just a message scrawled on paper. They show how behind-the-scenes legislators of both parties push for such requests. Sometimes lawmakers forwarded to budget committee chairmen proposals that came straight from the groups — or lobbyists — pushing the budget item.
Rep. Steve Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican in line to become the next House speaker, asked for money to pay for "The Range" that the city of Palm Bay wants to use for training, including moving targets and a shoot house. The House budget has $1 million for the project that is backed by local law enforcement agencies as well as the National Rifle Association.
The original request was $2.15 million but in a hand-written message to a House budget chairman Crisafulli wrote "this will get them started."
Another project that received funding in the House budget at the urging of Rep. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, was $200,000 for the Florida Healthy Choices Coalition intended to teach Florida students about abstinence and "sexual risk avoidance."
The Florida Legislature used to have an online tracking system that showed community budget requests and which legislators made the request. But that was shut down in the recession.
Still the records showed more than 350 requests were made to budget chairman in the Florida House, though many went nowhere like a $5 million pitch to help rebuild the Miami Marine Stadium in Key Biscayne.
But a check of those requests show that in many instances GOP legislators were much more successful than their Democrats in getting their project included in the House budget approved recently.
"That's the effect of winning elections," said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee and who put in requests including money for the two universities in her hometown.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief, would not answer a question as to why Republican legislators fared better. He also said that "no specific instructions" were given to budget committee chairman on how to make their spending recommendations.
"The speaker and I told them to be thoughtful and diligent in making budget recommendations when we handed them their allocations," McKeel said via email.