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Alexander scores biggest budget "turkey" with Florida Polytechnic University

 Florida lawmakers say a sluggish economy forced them to slash spending on health care and the state university system. They say a nearly $2 billion shortfall forced them to reassess priorities and eliminate about a thousand state jobs. However, James Call reports, lawmakers were able to find millions of dollars for members’ hometown projects.

Turkey is Tallahassee speak for state spending on local project. It is known as pork in the federal budget and the practice dates to at least 1817 when President James Madison vetoed money  a southern highway. The proposed 2012-13 state budget is loaded with millions of dollars of pork. Despite a nearly $400 million cut to health care and a $300 million reduction to the state university system, some influential lawmakers will bring home the bacon at the conclusion of the legislative session. Senate Budget chairman JD Alexander says it is a lawmaker’s job to serve a district and make sure the district’s views are heard and sometimes that means finding money for hometown projects.

"I think it is legitimate that they advocate for that kind of things. Also the governor is elected statewide and has a little different view and there is a strong constitutional interplay between those pressures and the governor will have an opportunity to review all those individual decisions and decide which ones make sense and which ones don’t."

Alexander may bag the biggest turkey in this year’s budget. As the Senate Budget Chair he was able to insert creation of the state’s 12th university into the proposed $70 billion budget.  The term turkey is generally applied to a project that does not go through the normal committee process of discussion and debate. Coconut Creek Representative Jim Waldman says there are many local projects the legislature should consider but he says the only ones that seem to get approved are those favored by powerful lawmakers; like the proposed Polytech U and Alexander.

"In the House we haven’t discussed it, the only discussion we had was the Senate bill that came over and that we sent back with an amendment that had nothing. Because we hadn’t discussed the merits of it yet it is going to come back to us now to vote up or down and it is pushed on us. So it does seem to be one of the bigger turkeys we will see this session."

Splitting off the University of South Florida’s Lakeland campus into a new university will consume about $12 million of this year’s budget. Other local projects include $10 million to promote economic development in Brevard County home of the Kennedy Space Center and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, $6.9 million to create a cardiovascular Institute at USF, promoted by future speaker Will Weatherford, $5 million for a regatta sports center in Sarasota, and $3.9 million for Orlando neighborhood improvements projects. Tallahassee Senator Bill Montford’s district includes Florida State University which loses $65 million in the proposed budget. Montford is a freshman Democrat in a Republican dominated legislature. When asked about member projects in a year when numerous programs face a billion dollars of cuts, he explains that the lawmakers pushing the projects always seem to have a good justification.

"We may not agree with it but to one member project is an absolutely necessity to some and to others it is questionable. But that is why we have the process that we have. That is why we have a member of the legislature to look at all these and take them into consideration and I can assure you that there are a lot of member projects out there that were turned down. Far, far more were turned down than were approved."

 Getting a line item in a proposed budget does not mean that the project will get any money. Last year Governor Rick Scott vetoed a record $615 million. Scott says he took a hands-off approach while lawmakers created a spending plan, offering comments only when asked. He requested an extra billion dollars for public schools and tax reductions for small businesses, which lawmakers provided.  Scott says he has just started reviewing the proposed budget.

"If you look at the vetoes I issued last year is I wanted to see what the returns are for taxpayers. So people have done. Some people have come back to me to talk about the positive impact it has on our state so I’ll be looking at that, I’ll probably be asking people or individuals that will be getting funds what is. What is the positive impact and see if they can justify it.  Over the next however much time I have to deal with the vetoes."

The governor has 15 days to act on a budget once he receives it from the Legislature. But first lawmakers have to pass a spending plan. Because of the constitutionally-required 72-hour cooling off period that vote can’t be held until after 4:22 p.m. Friday.