Thursday, November 20th, 2014

Scott-O-Meter

Veto pork-barrel spending


"Veto what the legislators call 'turkeys' — costly and unnecessary pork-barrel projects."


Updates

Rick Scott dials down his attack on budget 'turkeys' in second year

Much has happened since we last visited this promise in 2011.

Back then, Gov. Rick Scott threw a big budget-signing show to highlight all of the "turkeys” -- line-item projects inserted into the budget by lawmakers, usually to benefit their hometowns -- he was trimming from the budget. We rated his pledge to veto unnecessary projects Promise Kept.

But Scott changed his style in 2012, and the result was more turkey left on the table.

To understand why we're changing the rating of this promise, we'll take you through a comparison of his 2011 vetoes with those of 2012, news coverage of his second budget-signing, and interviews with experts and activists.

The 2011 VetoFest

Addressing a throng of conservative supporters at The Villages, Scott signed the budget and boasted about what it was missing: member projects totaling a record $615 million, thanks to the stroke of his Sharpie.

He berated the "Tallahassee insiders” who tried slipping pet projects into the state's strained budget.

(We"ll pause to note that Scott's total amount of vetoed spending is substantially lower if you exclude money that would have gone toward environmental land buys. More on that here).

The next year, though, saw a new Scott.

What he vetoed in 2012

After the 2012 legislative session, Scott signed the $70 billion "education budget” before an audience of elementary students and reporters. He did not exactly skimp on vetoes, using his pen to knock out $143 million worth of various projects, but he didn't go to town on them like his freshman year.

Among the dozens of casualties: $100,000 to Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County; $3 million for the University of Miami's medical school; $1 million for mosquito control research; $500,000 for the Florida Aquarium in Tampa; and $500,000 for a Bay of Pigs historical museum in Miami -- on the invasion's 51st anniversary. View the full list here.

His veto of $1.5 million for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence -- intended for rape crisis centers -- made him the ire of national liberal-leaning websites, from The Daily Kos, the Huffington Post, ThinkProgress and Rachel Maddow's blog.

Local officials whose hometown projects got the axe expressed heartache. State Rep. Jose Diaz, R-Miami, told the Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald he was "especially disappointed to see that the governor vetoed two separate projects that would have directly benefited families of children with autism in South Florida.”

What he didn't veto -- and why

Still, Scott did not come anywhere close to topping his 2011 record, and many news accounts acknowledged his comparative restraint. Not that it came easily. This time, getting Scott's approval required interested parties to present a persuasive case.

For example, Scott in 2011 vetoed money for a rowing center in Sarasota County. In 2012, he allowed $5 million for the project to stay in the budget after county officials agreed to return the money if it does not create as much sales tax revenue as expected, the Times/Herald reported.

"When I went line by line through the budget, I asked myself, 'Is this the proper role of state government?' " Scott wrote in his transmission letter of the vetoes. "'Should we spend taxpayers' dollars for that purpose? And if so, what is the return on investment?' "

Lawmakers whose projects remained in the budget praised the more "deliberative” Scott.

"Is he becoming a better politician? Yes,'' Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, told the Times/Herald.

Scott approved $1 million for the Boys and Girls Club of Pasco County while rejecting money for Girls Incorporated in Sarasota County because Boys and Girls Clubs have "measurable results.”

Pasco County is also home to Rep. Will Weatherford, the incoming House speaker at the time.

"The governor has been very deliberate and methodical in going about this," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told the Times/Herald. "There's always going to be winners and losers."

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, in 2011 bemoaned vetoes of his hometown projects, including $10 million for the St. Johns River. But Scott approved $5.6 million to go toward improving the river's lower basin in 2012, and he even toured the river with the secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection in the weeks following his budget-signing.

"I think experience on the job," accounts for the smaller veto total, Thrasher told the Tallahassee Democrat. "He's reaching out to more and more people."

Scott was uneasy with reporters characterizing lawmakers' appeals for personal projects as lobbying.

"Lobby might not be a good word," he said, according to the Democrat. "They convinced me."

What about Florida Polytechnic?

Tea party activist Henry Kelley said Scott was making good on his promise to reduce pork barrel projects, including a veto in 2012 of $1.5 million earmarked for Florida A&M University's pharmacy program in the rural Panhandle town of Crestview.

But that decision does not square with Scott approving the creation of the state"s 12th state university, the top priority of a departing Sen. JD Alexander, the Republican budget chairman from Lake Wales, Kelley said. Scott's approval of Florida Polytechnic epitomized hypocrisy, Kelley said, and led him to question Scott's overall commitment to fiscal discipline.

"The Polytech deal really left a bad taste in my mouth,” he said. "Is now really the time for somebody's pet project to get passed?”

Florida TaxWatch, a business-backed public policy group that provides the most comprehensive annual review of what it considers budget "turkeys” from the legislative session, did not include the creation of Florida Polytechnic as the state's 12th university on its list. (A budget "turkey” means the project ended up in the budget but did not receive proper scrutiny by lawmakers.)

Why? The new university "had substantive legislation behind it,” said TaxWatch president Dominic Calabro at the time.

That's true, said Fasano, a bigtime Polytech opponent, in an interview with us. But "there's no question that Polytech is a member project,” he said.

TaxWatch's list versus Scott's list

We asked Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch vice president of tax research, for his take on Scott's veto actions.

In 2011, Scott vetoed 89 percent of projects -- or 83 percent of spending -- identified as budget turkeys by TaxWatch.

That percentage dropped quite a bit in 2012, down to 61 percent. Scott's second-year performance was even worse by dollar amount, at 37 percent, Wenner said.

The decline does not mean the group is doubting Scott's ability to keep his pledge to cut back on pork, he said.

"While we always feel there were more items worthy of a governor's veto, Gov. Scott's two-year percentage is -- I believe -- the highest in the history of Florida TaxWatch's Turkey Watch,” Wenner said.

When we asked the governor's office for comment on this update, spokeswoman Jackie Schutz sent us the following statement:

"While we continue to cut state spending and pay down debt for the first time in 20 years, Governor Scott supports investing in priorities that help Florida families,” she wrote.

So what's the rating?

Yes, Scott vetoed many special-interest projects in 2012. But he minimized his political clashes with lawmakers and allowed far more to remain in the budget this year.

Lawmakers said he listened. To some fiscal conservatives, he caved.

We're moving this pledge to Compromise.

Sources:

Florida TaxWatch, turkey list with vetoes, accessed Nov. 26, 2012

Gov. Rick Scott, 2012 veto list,accessed Nov. 26, 2012

Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, "Gov. Rick Scott signs $70 billion state budget after $142.7 million in vetoes,” April 18, 2012

Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, "Legislative menu: turkey,” April 14, 2012 (accessed via Nexis)

Interview with Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch vice president of tax research, Nov. 27, 2012

Interview with Henry Kelley, chairman of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party, Nov. 27, 2012

Interview with Rep. Mike Fasano, Nov. 28, 2012

Tallahassee Democrat, "Scott signs $70B Fla. budget, trims $143M,” April 18, 2012 (accessed via Nexis)

Palm Beach Post, "$143 million in vetoes includes local projects,” April 18, 2012 (accessed via Nexis)

Tampa Bay Times/Miami Herald, "Rick Scott signs budget, vetoes record $615m from state budget," May 26, 2011

Interview with Jackie Schutz, Scott spokeswoman, Nov. 29, 2012

Scott vetoed millions of dollars of 'turkeys'

Is Gov. Rick Scott a slayer of turkeys in the state budget?

During the 2010 campaign, Scott promised to "veto what the legislators call 'turkeys' -- costly and unnecessary pork-barrel projects."

Despite lean economic times, Florida legislators still tried to sneak dozens of hometown projects within the state's $69 billion budget. We will note there isn't a perfect definition of a "turkey" in a state budget.

The Times/Herald put the total at $156 million for hometown projects -- a big number but about 0.23 percent of the total budget. The Tampa Tribune put the figure at "more than $150 million."

But newspapers widely report the nearly $203 million total turkey figure from Florida TaxWatch, a group that has been tracking state budget spending for years. TaxWatch defines turkeys as projects placed in the budget without proper public review which circumvent procedures or lack competitive bidding or benefit a special interest or local area. By labeling a project a "turkey" Florida TaxWatch isn't saying the project is worthless -- the label refers to the budget process itself. 

Some of these turkeys were added in last-minute negotiations between the House and Senate -- which typically means they were not requested by an agency or the governor and were not included in the original budget bills that passed either chamber. In other words, these are projects ultimately selected by very few legislators who hold positions of power to finalize the budget. For more information read TaxWatch's Turkey Report.

For this year, Florida TaxWatch created a spreadsheet of 105 turkeys or about $202.9 million -- the most it tallied since 2007. Scott vetoed about $180.9 million, or 87 projects -- that translates to 89 percent of the turkey dollars. That's more than any other Florida governor in the past 10 years, according to Florida TaxWatch's report. The turkeys on the list include an array of projects for universities, health/human services and cultural programs. The spreadsheet lists the project, dollar amount and county location and comments which explain why the organization considers it a turkey. Here are a few examples on the turkey list that were vetoed, according to TaxWatch:

* Dan Marino Foundation, $500,000, Broward County

* Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Centers $100,000, Miami-Dade County 

* University of South Florida - Health School of Pharmacy at Polytechnic $10 million, Polk County

* International Regatta Sports Center - Nathan Benderson Park $5 million, Pinellas County

Among the turkeys that Scott didn't veto -- some were for health care, such as $3 million for rural primary care residency slots. Others that survived included stormwater improvement projects and the Florida Holocaust Museum in Pinellas County (while a project at a Holocaust museum in Broward County was axed.)

Another interesting note about turkeys: take a look at the location of those hometown projects. The county that received the most hometown projects was Orange, home to Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon. And the largest turkey was for a veterans homeless support group in Brevard -- home to Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos. Broward County -- the second-most populous but lacking political muscle in GOP Tallahassee because its legislators and voters are overwhelmingly Democratic -- was lower on the list.

The turkey vetoes aren't the full sum of Scott's vetoes -- he axed about $615 million from the state budget -- about half for environmental land buys. Whether he holds the veto record depends on whether you include the land buys, according to the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald.

Kurt Wenner, Florida TaxWatch's project leader for the turkey list, says he doesn't believe we will ever see a governor veto 100 percent of turkeys when there are a significant number of them.

"Ninety percent is a very high amount particularly for the number of turkeys we had," he said.

Scott didn't provide detail in his campaign 7-7-7 plan to make it clear about whether he intended to veto every single turkey. We agree with Wenner -- it's unlikely a governor would ax every single one. We rate this Promise Kept.

Sources:

Rick Scott's campaign, 7-7-7 plan, 2010

Gov. Rick Scott, Veto message, May 26, 2011

Florida TaxWatch, Turkey List, 2011-12 

Florida TaxWatch, Turkey Watch report, 2011

PolitiFact, "Now it's time to trim the turkeys," May 17, 2011

Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times"Lawmakers agree on $68 billion budget, tax cuts," May 3, 2011

Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times"Rick Scott vetoes record $615m from state budget," May 26, 2011

Florida Independent"TaxWatch triggers turkey talk," May 24, 2011

Tampa Tribune"Session of regression," May 7, 2011

Interview, Kurt Wenner, vice president of tax research for Florida TaxWatch, June 30, 2011
 

Now it's time to trim the turkeys

In the pre-dawn hours on May 7, 2011, the Florida Legislature adjourned after overcoming its usual final hurdle: the annual budget. The Senate approved the $69.7 billion proposal late on May 6, and the House passed it just after 2 a.m. May 7.

We have written about many of the budget provisions: to cut taxes, cut state jobs and require workers to contribute to their pensions. But the budget includes other appropriations often described as turkeys, pork, hometown projects or special member projects.

These allocations are about bringing home the bacon. Lawmakers try to slip money into the budget for spending in their districts, to show the voters that they're up in Tallahassee helping out the folks back home.

During the 2010 campaign, Rick Scott promised he would "veto what the legislators call 'turkeys' – costly and unnecessary pork-barrel projects."

But using his line-item veto now to strike out millions of dollars worth of turkeys will not make him popular with the lawmakers who proposed them. Whether taxpayers want them vetoed likely depends on whether you're one of the folks back home who would benefit from the spending.

What are these turkeys?

A St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald article on May 3 described some of them.

Sen. J.D. Alexander, the budget chief, steered $46 million to University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland. Future House Speaker Will Weatherford added $6.9 million for Pasco-Hernando Community College in his hometown of Wesley Chapel. Future Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville put in $6 million in economic aid to the Panhandle in the wake of the Gulf oil spill.

An Orlando Sentinel report on May 4 noted that Sen. Gary Siplin, an Orlando Democrat who supported Republicans on some votes, was able to include $3.4 million for the Pine Hills neighborhood, $900,000 for the Parramore neighborhood and $100,000 for historic preservation in Eatonville, all in Orange County.

House Speaker Dean Cannon put in $2.4 million for the medical school at the University of Central Florida and $400,000 for the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government, the Sentinel reported. Added during the final week of the session were $2 million for the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute and $6 million for a University of Florida facility, both in the Orlando area. (Cannon's a UF grad.)

The Times/Herald report put the total in hometown projects at $156 million -- a big number but about 0.23 percent of the total budget.

Asked May 3 by the St. Petersburg Times Buzz blog whether he'll stick to his campaign vow, Scott hedged. He said he'd ask only one question: "Is it going to get our economy going?" That's a caveat he hadn't mentioned during the campaign. The Times also noted that Scott likely did some horse-trading with lawmakers on their turkeys to gain support for his own efforts to reduce the corporate income tax.

With the budget passed by the Legislature and now in Scott's hands for his signature or selective vetoes, he has his first chance as governor to "veto what the legislators call 'turkeys.' " So we wait. For now, this promise is In the Works.

Sources:

Miami Herald, "Lawmakers agree on $68 billion budget, tax cuts," May 3, 2011

Orlando Sentinel, "Budget deal sets $308 million in tax cuts," May 4, 2011

St. Petersburg Times Buzz blog, "Will corporate tax deal save some pork projects in state budget?" May 3, 2011