FILE - Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis

Budget hawk turkey hunting is more difficult in Florida with the adoption of revised appropriation rules over the last three legislative sessions that require more scrutiny for “member projects,” but the emergence of last-minute supplementary spending – or “sprinkles” – may be creating a new breed of "budget turkeys."

Nevertheless, according to Florida TaxWatch’s 33rd annual “Budget Turkeys List” published Wednesday, lawmakers are doing a better job vetting “member projects” that had routinely slipped under the wire, often during late-session chamber conferences.

TaxWatch defines budget turkeys as “items, usually local member projects, placed in individual line-items … added to the final appropriations bill without being fully scrutinized and subjected to the budget process. The "budget turkey" label does not signify judgment of a project’s worthiness.”

This year’s budget turkey list produced by the Tallahassee-based taxpayer watchdog includes 109 appropriations totaling $133 million.

Most are transportation projects – 67 totaling $85.3 million – not in the Department of Transportation [DOT] Work Program, but added as “local projects” by individual representatives and senators.

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.

That’s down from more than $250 million in budget turkey spending several years ago and, in the context of a $91.1 billion fiscal year 2020 state budget, less than one-tenth of 1 percent in total spending.

“It’s a mixed bag,” Florida TaxWatch Vice President of Research Kurt Wenner told The Center Square. “A lot of good things [lawmakers] are doing, a couple of things they’re slipping on.”

Those “couple of things” include 227 line items in the Fiscal Year 2020 budget that received supplemental or “sprinkle” spending boosts of $290 million above committee-approved expenditures and approximately 600 member projects worth $450 million.

“The new rules are reducing the number of turkeys, but not member projects. They’re getting [in the budget process] earlier and that’s a good trend, a positive development,” Wenner said. “Member projects, now you can find out what they’re all about [in committee reviews] and fewer brand new ones are being added during conferencing.”

But budget turkeys are still out there and Florida TaxWatch has recommendations for Gov. Ron DeSantis should he want to break out his line-item veto pen. Here are brief highlights of TaxWatch’s budget turkeys:

Transportation Projects: “The legislature continues to fund an excessive [and growing] number of local member transportation projects,” TaxWatch writes in identifying 67 projects totaling $85.3 million that qualify as budget turkeys in the FY 2020 budget.

The work program is developed by the DOT in coordination with metropolitan planning organizations, local governments and the federal government. It is funded through the State Transportation Trust Fund [STTF].

The DOT Work Program called for $5 million this year, so it is designed to “give lawmakers discretion to add projects,” TaxWatch writes.

But the projects cited as budget turkeys by TaxWatch include $80.3 million in “unvetted” dollars.

Twenty-three of the 67 projects exceed $1 million, including a $13.3 million Citrus County road-widening project, a $10-million 44th Avenue extension in Manatee County and $3.7 million in improvements to State Route 313 in St. Johns County.

College/University Projects: The Legislature funded 11 projects totaling $118.5 million, including three budget turkeys amounting to $11.3 million – Daytona Satellite Campus ($5 million); Indian River Satellite Campus ($4.2 million) and UNF Lassiter Hall renovation ($2 million).

They’re not budget turkeys because they are wasteful, but because funding formulas – and amounts – changed from plans committees had approved.

Wenner said the legislature this year adopted a bill that requires the state Board of Governors and Division of Colleges to finish projects before adding new ones, a Florida TaxWatch recommendation.

“It’s a positive development,” he said.

DEP 1657A Water Projects: The legislature approved almost $1 billion in funding requested by the state’s Water Policy & Ecosystem Restoration and Water Restoration Assistance programs this year, including $181.7 million for wastewater treatment facility construction, $125.5 for drinking water facility construction loans and $13 million for small county wastewater treatment grants.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also approved an additional 51 projects worth $49.1 million, $19 million more than last year, in member projects.

Department of Economic Opportunity ‘Line-Items’: “These three budget lines have become gathering places for member projects,” TaxWatch writes, explaining the entries are “a hodge-podge of all types of projects.”

• Housing/Community Development: 25 projects worth $20.7 million – including an $8-million housing project in Jacksonville – up from eight projects for $5.4 million last year. “Many could have been funded in other places in the budget,” according to Tax Watch.

• Economic Development: Five projects worth $9.2 million.

• Work Force: Three projects worth $1.3 million. “These projects are in addition to $262 million in the budget for local workforce development boards,” TaxWatch notes.