FILE - Florida TaxWatch budget turkey

While appropriations rules adopted two years ago are reducing the number of “budget turkeys,” Florida TaxWatch warns lawmakers are finding wrinkles – or “sprinkles” – in the process to approve expenditures that “circumvent transparency and accountability standards in public budgeting.”

“The most disconcerting thing about this year’s appropriations process – from a ‘budget turkey’ perspective – was the increased use of supplemental appropriations lists,” Florida TaxWatch writes. “These lists, which have come to be called ‘sprinkle lists,’ are approved at virtually the last minute.”

This year’s "budget turkey list" includes 109 appropriations totaling $133 million. Most are transportation projects – 67 totaling $85.3 million – not in the state’s Department of Transportation (DOT) Work Program, but added as “local projects” by representatives and senators, often during late-session conferencing between chambers.

Last year, TaxWatch identified 87 appropriations totaling $147.5 million in its "budget turkey list" with 56 totaling $120 million adopted as member projects not in the DOT Work Program.

However, TaxWatch maintains, the "sprinkle list" spending is dramatically exceeding expenditures on "budget turkeys" with the Senate adding 127 items worth $153.5 million and the House funding 110 items totaling $136.2 million in this year’s budget.

“This means $289.7 million in hard-earned taxpayer dollars were spent as almost an afterthought, after all the various budget areas had been ‘closed-out,’” TaxWatch said.

Concerns about “sprinkles” are among issues raised in Wednesday’s release of the 33rd annual “Budget Turkeys” list produced by Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan, nonprofit “taxpayer research institute” based in Tallahassee.

Florida TaxWatch Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner, one of the report’s authors, explained “sprinkles” are “additions to line items already in the budget that have already been debated” in committees, but emerge from late-session, often late-night, conferences between the chambers with more money than initially appropriated.

They are then adopted in the overall budget without many lawmakers aware the money for a specific expenditure had been increased.

Wenner told The Center Square these “sprinkles’ often occur in appropriations for statewide environmental and public safety projects, but also for “member projects,” such as a $500,000 “sprinkle” on an approved $150,000 appropriation for the 4Roots Farm and Agricultural Center in Orange County.

“The ‘sprinkle list’ was the biggest that we have seen,” Wenner said. “If this is a new trend, we may need to change our criteria” for what qualifies as a ‘budget turkey.’

TaxWatch defines budget turkeys as “items, usually local member projects, placed in individual line-items or accompanying proviso language that are added to the final budget without being fully scrutinized. The ‘budget turkey’ label does not signify judgment of a project’s worthiness.”

Despite new rules that require member projects be inserted into the process earlier to get the proper budgetary review, Wenner said the number of member projects are not declining.

According to the report, this year’s budget contains approximately 600 member projects worth $450 million. This brings the three-year total since the rules were adopted two years ago and spanning three sessions to more than 1,800 members' projects worth $1.7 billion, TaxWatch maintains.

“With a few exceptions, the House subcommittee hearings on member projects are simply pro forma events, with very little discussion or debate,” the report states. “Overall, House committees in 2019 approved 1,103 appropriations project bills [up from 702 last year] and no bills were voted down. In reality, this is understandable. Voting against another member’s spending project may do nothing more than endanger your own.”

In addition, the Senate requested 1,673 projects, totaling $3.5 billion – 42 projects and $88 million per senator.

“The new rules are reducing the number of turkeys, but not member projects,” Wenner said, although adding the good news is “they’re getting [in the budget review process] earlier and that is a good trend, a positive development.”

Among recommendations to “further promote the integrity of Florida’s budget process,” Florida TaxWatch said member project rules installed two years ago “should become permanent and continue to be improved upon. The new practice of detailing the recurring projects in the base budget should also be continued.”

Dramatically overhauling – if not prohibiting – supplemental funding, or “sprinkles” should be a priority, TaxWatch maintains.