Gov. Scott weighing value of dozens of budget projects (just don't call them turkeys)

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As he prepares to consider the state budget for the second time around, Gov. Rick Scott faces the same issue that caused a round of headlines in his first turn as the final vote on funding: Member projects sprinkled throughout the spending plan, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

Lawmakers have yet to send Scott the $70 billion budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. But the governor will make his decision on which items live or die after a year in which he whacked a record $615 million from the plan. (Critics at the time pointed out that the number was significantly inflated by slicing more than $300 million in authorized spending for Florida Forever, much of which was never expected to materialize.)

That move appears to have gotten the attention of lawmakers — who are more active in trying to make sure he hears the case for their projects this year, Scott told reporters.

“I know more people, which is a positive,” he said. “I’m getting a lot more phone calls this year, too.”

But Scott has said his criteria remain largely the same as what he outlined last year — a focus on what will benefit those who will foot the bill.

“My responsibility is to the taxpayers of the state,” he said. “If it’s a good return on the taxpayers’ money, I’m interested in it. If it’s not, I’m not.”

Some of the projects he will face are also the same. Once again, a rowing center in Sarasota County would receive millions if Scott left it untouched. The project sat at $1 million for much of the budget process this year, then moved to $5 million in the final version.

There were also a slew of educational efforts, many of them tacked on as the bill moved through the Senate. As the budget was debated on the floor, various sponsors won $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum and $150,000 for a historic log cabin in Biscayne Park.

Various Holocaust history-related expenditures also made it into the plan; including $500,000 to renovate a rail car as part of an education effort.

Lawmakers also tucked into the plan $445,000 for the Mound House in Lee County. The website for the Fort Myers Beach attraction bills it as “Estero Island’s oldest standing structure” and notes that it “sits on an ancient Calusa Indian Mound.”

The slew of projects led Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican running for Congress, to compare the budgeting process to wasteful spending in Washington, D.C. — including the infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.”

“We’ve got several projects here that I just don’t think we can afford,” he said. ” … If the folks in those local areas want to have those things, I think it would be entirely appropriate for those to be funded locally, but I don’t know about the interest of the state taxpayers as a whole.”

The Senate was hardly alone.

House budget-writers found room for $1 million for the Central Florida Sports Commission to help with the Major League Soccer Combine and spring training. Another $500,000 flowed to the Florida Aquarium in Hillsborough County. LaBelle, in Hendry County, received $350,000 for a wharf project.

Asked about the special projects during the session, House Speaker Dean Cannon — whose Orange County would benefit from the sports money and a $5 million boost to a life science incubator consortium — said the legislative process was meant to weed out the worst and preserve the best projects.

“I think that there have always been and there’ll probably always be projects of either regional- or issue-specific nature in the budget,” said Cannon, R-Winter Park.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.