Better Way to Shoot a Turkey

May 22, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Published in: Sunshine State News

For 27 years now, Florida TaxWatch has been announcing its annual Turkey List. As a lobbyist who has specialized in putting “Member Projects,” as we like to call them, into the state budget, this is a time-honored process.

As a taxpayer I have long admired TaxWatch and its leader Dominic Calabro for his unwavering commitment to being a relentless watchdog of government spending and a tireless advocate for inciting more government efficiency. And as a proud TaxWatch board member for the last six or so years, I have come to realize that every state needs just such a group to hold elected – and unelected — officials accountable, which is why TaxWatch was recognized by its peers last year as the very best in the entire country!

I was dismayed to recently read Senate President Don Gaetz’s comments about TaxWatch and its Turkey List. I can understand his angst that some of his projects were on the list because I have often found many of my projects on the list as well, and I’ve spent countless hours over the years debating with Dominic and his staff the proper definition of a turkey. Suffice to say that I have yet to be successful in changing their minds and for that I have even greater respect for their perseverance in this cause of rooting out budget stuffing.

Having said that, I concur with the president and Sen. Joe Negron that elected officials have as much right as unelected bureaucrats to put items in the budget. I just wouldn’t have used the words that the president did in trying to make his point.

I’m conflicted because I deem myself to be a fiscal conservative but I also recognize that we elect our officials to make decisions on expenditures for the rest of us. Most of those decisions are extremely difficult to make as there are few easy choices to make in whether children will receive pre-K schooling from certified teachers or whether senior citizens will have the opportunity to access medical prescriptions at a competitive price. That’s why it’s so easy to criticize anyone that has to produce a budget because it’s always damned if you do or damned if you don’t.

However, I also want them to put hometown projects in the budget because it is part of the American way to use government funds to benefit us all in the form of a new park, a new fire engine for a rural community, funding for an efficacious social service program, a courthouse repair, etc. Interestingly, some I think are good, but many of them also seem a trifle expensive and very limiting in their overall economic impact, and I suspect that most of us would agree too. So, what’s a good fiscal conservative supposed to do?

TaxWatch makes a valid point, from its perspective, that the earlier an item is in the budget the more legitimacy it has. I understand that thinking completely, but I disagree with the premise. I actually believe that more legitimacy comes from the legislative branch which is constitutionally-driven to deliver a budget to the governor for his approval – or not.

Is it possible to have it both ways? Yes and former Gov. Jeb Bush, to his credit, devised a system called at that time Community Budget Issue Request (CBIR, pronounced “See-bur”) which required all legislators to submit a standard form which asked all of the relevant questions that a legislative body and a governor would want to know before it is approved. Is it for recurring revenue, what’s its past success statistics, is there a local match and if so what is the amount and ratio, is the organization a nonprofit, has it received funding before and what were those outcomes, etc.?

I don’t really recall when the CBIR form disappeared, probably during the term of Gov. Charlie Crist, but it seems readily apparent to me that we need to return to just such a system because it invokes transparency and accountability, the watchwords of today. Furthermore, it ensures that all projects are graded on an equitable basis going forward.

This came to mind when I saw that Gov. Rick Scott had recently written a letter to two Member Projects (I don’t like using the term “turkeys” though I have to admit that it’s catchy and understandable) asking them to return funds if they do not reach the high water marks that they set for themselves. This is what a good governor should do; hold the requesting agency to the standard that it set for itself when it requested the money. Just like any other Member Project that professes certain outcomes, these need to be measured and documented to ensure that taxpayers aren’t getting fleeced.

This is a reasonable compromise which satisfies both TaxWatch’s desire to see that projects are properly vetted, while at the same time ensuring the right of legislators to put projects into the budget. Sen. Negron is right when he says that many Member Projects are never approved and that this is what budget conference committees are all about. Likewise, TaxWatch is right that there needs to be a proper vetting for all projects.

There are always two sides to every story. While our elected officials are charged with producing a balanced budget, we also desperately need taxpayers to have their voices heard if we are to preserve this democratic process that has served us so well for these last 237 years. Neither may be always right, but both sides must always be heard because there is value to each in their respective philosophies.

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