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Florida TaxWatch flags $120 million in "turkeys"

Florida TaxWatch released its annual list of budget “turkeys” on Friday, flagging $120 million in spending the group says was included by lawmakers without the proper public vetting, including large projects in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Miami-Dade and Pasco counties.

Leading Florida, Hillsborough County had 12 projects flagged: $12 million on the Port of Tampa Bay’s Gantry Crane; $5 million on the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine; $3 million for the Florida Conservation and Technology Center in Apollo Beach; and $2.5 million for the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI).

Miami-Dade had 11 projects on the list, including $2 million for SkyRise Miami; $3.4 million for the Ludlam Trail Corridor, $5 million for a gymnasium at Miami-Dade College; and $1 million for Munroe Marine Stadium in Miami.

Pinellas had eight projects identified, including $2.5 million for a dredging and wharf stabilization project in Tarpon Springs; $500,000 for a Tarpon Springs performing arts center; and $500,000 for Mahaffey Theater improvements in St. Petersburg.

Pasco only had one project on the list, but it was a big one: $10 million the construction of a performing arts center at Pasco- Hernando State College.

Overall, the self-appointed watchdog identified 107 projects in next year’s $77.1 billion budget that account for a miniscule portion of overall state spending -- about one-quarter of 1 percent. That doesn’t diminish the importance of what the group has identified, said Robert Weissert, chief research officer and general counsel.

“We’re talking about a significant amount of money,” Weissert told reporters. “It’s a case of government reaching into people’s pockets and taking out that money, and public budgeting is a trust and it’s a process that must not only be transparent and accountable but held to the highest standards.”

As it does every year, the group timed the release of the report to the governor’s review of the budget, which was passed by lawmakers on May 3. On Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott was sent the budget, and has until June 4 to veto line items.

“The governor has the constitutional authority and responsibility of the line item veto, so this (report) is intended as that part of the process,” Weissert said.

Last year, Scott vetoed 71 of the 107 projects the group identified, nixing $71.1 million in spending. In 2012, he vetoed 97 of the group’s 159 so-called turkeys, which eliminated $63 million. In his first year in office, 2011, Scott vetoed 83 percent of the group’s turkeys, which totaled about $181 milllion.

In theory, Florida TaxWatch is a non-profit, non-partisan “research institute” founded in 1979 by a group of former Florida lawmakers and business owners who wanted to better control government spending.