TaxWatch urges veto of $150 million in budget 'turkeys' -- $1.8 million in Palm Beach County

TALLAHASSEE , Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott was urged Friday to veto $149.6 million in hometown projects and other suspect spending in the state's proposed $70 billion budget, including millions tucked in by legislative leaders.

Florida TaxWatch released its annual "turkey watch" as a prelude to Scott's planned budget signing next week. Scott vetoed a record $615 million in spending last year but recently told "The Palm Beach Post" he didn't expect hitting anywhere near that level in the latest round.

TaxWatch President Dominic Calabro said Scott should rely on a simple guide when reviewing legislative spending proposals.

"When in doubt, take it out," Calabro said.

Along with 143 budget items TaxWatch targeted for veto, the business-backed research and advocacy organization recommended Scott look closely at $21.3 million in economic development projects.

TaxWatch, whose leaders include representatives of some of the state's largest corporations, conceded some on the 16-project list may spur the economy.

But it urged the state's Department of Economic Opportunity to give them all a thorough vetting.

A handful of Palm Beach County budget items were marked as turkeys in TaxWatch's analysis.

They were: $1 million for water treatment work in the Glades area, $500,000 for widening Riviera Beach's 13th Street, $250,000 for security at this fall's presidential debate at Boca Raton's Lynn University, and $50,000 to help prepare a master plan for Torry Island development.

Todd Bonlarron, Palm Beach County's lobbyist, said he was confident Scott would leave the county's four spending items alone.

"Palm Beach County doesn't go to Tallahassee with its arms out trying to get projects," Bonlarron said. "We've reached out to the governor's office and tried to explain the need for these projects."

Tony Brown, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Authority, earlier told The Post the 13th Street money would help the city complete a project it sees as vital to connecting a nearby industrial park to the Port of Palm Beach.

Brown called the state's expected contribution a "good public partnership" for a city strapped by several years of budget deficits.

TaxWatch, though, said the 13th Street project, vetoed last year by Scott, was an inappropriate use of state dollars. Other projects were challenged by TaxWatch because they failed to be recommended by a state agency, serve a broader purpose or were last-minute budget additions that drew insufficient legislative scrutiny.

Legislative leaders saw several of their hometown projects questioned.

Two of the biggest spending items TaxWatch opposed were in the backyard of Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, with $14 million for a Brevard College public safety institute and $10 million for economic development condemned as turkeys.

House budget chair Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, also would lose $520,203 for an international baccalaureate program at Sebring High School, and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, would have $389,825 axed from a science and technology program at a local middle school, if Scott follows TaxWatch's recommendation.

But one of the most controversial spending provisions of the spring session -- the acceleration of the transformation of the University of South Florida's Polytechnic campus in Lakeland into the state's 12th public university -- did not fit the organization's definition of a turkey because it was included in legislation fully reviewed by lawmakers.

But the effort by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander to get a university in his home county still may not be the best use of taxpayer money, Calabro acknowledged. Polytechnic would receive $27 million in state start-up funds, while USF would get $16 million to cover costs stemming from the separation.

"Do we need a 12th university? I think the preponderance of our thinking is no," Calabro said.