Despite lawmakers' efforts to increase transparency while crafting the 2015-16 Florida state budget, 189 projects worth $167 million were inserted into the budget without sufficient public scrutiny, or circumventing established budget processes, according to the Florida TaxWatch 2015 Budget Turkey Watch Report: An analysis of the accountability and transparency of the budget process. The annual independent budget review highlights appropriations that circumvent transparency and accountability standards in public budgeting. The 2015 Budget Turkeys make up less than one-quarter of one percent of this year's $78.7 billion budget.
"Florida TaxWatch commends the Legislature for creating a balanced budget that meets the needs of many of our most vulnerable citizens, invests in education, and returns money to Florida's hardworking taxpayers through tax cuts, especially while facing uncertainty from the federal government," said Dominic M. Calabro, President and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, the independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit public policy research institute and government watchdog. "However, as the taxpayers' trusted watchdog, it is our responsibility to highlight each of the projects that circumvent responsible budgeting processes, allowing taxpayers to hold their elected officials accountable for budgeting decisions."
The "Budget Turkey" label does not signify judgment of a project's worthiness or value; rather, the label is given to projects that did not receive adequate public deliberation and debate, or did not follow established budget processes. Florida TaxWatch identifies the list of Budget Turkeys in order to promote transparency in public budgeting and encourage meaningful legislative review of all appropriations.
"While Governor Rick Scott signed the new budget prior to the release of the 2015 Budget Turkey Watch Report, the report continues to promote increased transparency in the budget and calls for competitive processes to be established for the appropriation of member projects," added Calabro. "The Budget Turkey Watch Report is not about recommending vetoes; rather, it is about promoting integrity and transparency in the use of taxpayer money. We are encouraged that the Governor is also promoting these values, as he vetoed many projects for circumventing established funding processes, a central criterion in the Budget Turkey Watch process."
In addition to listing the Budget Turkeys, the report contains observations from this year's legislative budgeting process, emphasizing the lack of transparency during the appropriation of projects appearing on the list, especially during budget conference.
"While the budget conference process is necessary to get the budget finished, new line items should not be added during budget conference negotiations," said Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Florida TaxWatch. "When projects are added for the first time in the final hour of the budget process with no public debate or review, the taxpayers lose. Unfortunately, several lawmakers lost this year too, when projects properly included in either the House or Senate budget were removed during conference, due to lack of available revenue. Despite this reasoning, many projects, including hundreds of millions of dollars in additional funding, were added to the final budget in the eleventh hour."
The report notes that several lawmakers identified opportunities to increase transparency in the budget process and are open to establishing new systems to enhance taxpayer protections in the future.
"Florida TaxWatch is encouraged that the legislature has identified many of our longstanding and mutual concerns regarding appropriate budget integrity processes, and it is our hope that lawmakers will continue implementing additional budget integrity protections in coming years," according to the report.
See the 2015 Budget Turkey Watch Report here.