Backroom Briefing: Spending Draws Scrutiny

TALLAHASSEE — Florida TaxWatch this week raised concerns about 450 items in the state’s proposed budget for next fiscal year and called for additional scrutiny into 1,600 local projects backed by lawmakers.

The budget, passed by the Legislature in March and awaiting action by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is advertised as totaling $117.5 billion. But an additional $2 billion in taxpayer spending was approved in separate bills.

Kurt Wenner, senior vice president of research for TaxWatch, said those separate bills went through committees and received votes, so the additional spending doesn’t raise big red flags.

“We think that that kind of spending gets more review,” Wenner said. “And so, we’re not going to have a problem with them doing that. I do think that they need to count that when telling everybody how much the budget is.”

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The additional spending was included in more than 15 bills, most of which DeSantis has already signed. Lawmakers have touted the proposed 2024-2025 budget as being a reduction from the $119.1 billion budget plan for the current year, which ends June 30, but that doesn’t take into account money included in separate bills.

For example, spending includes $717 million in a wide-ranging health care bill (SB 7016) that was a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples; $536 million from a gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that will be used for environmental projects (SB 1638); and $200 million to continue the My Safe Florida Home program, which helps residents harden their homes against storms (SB 7028).

The non-profit TaxWatch issues a budget “turkey” report each year that raises questions about spending approved by the Legislature. TaxWatch bases its analysis on the process of how items ended up in the budget, often as part of last-minute, behind-the-scenes negotiations. It says it doesn’t try to evaluate the merits of individual projects or programs.

During a news conference Wednesday, Wenner expressed concerns about an uptick in spending on local projects proposed by lawmakers.

“Attitudes towards single member projects have changed,” Wenner said. “It used to be kind of a wink-wink thing. You know, they were a little sheepish … to say that they were trying to do something for their constituents. And they’re proud of that. But they always knew that they were turkeys or whatever they wanted to call them at the time.”

The Legislature has not formally sent the proposed budget to DeSantis, who has line-item veto power.

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PUSHING BACK

Brevard County School Board member Jennifer Jenkins is backing a national effort to find candidates who will counter a push by groups like Moms for Liberty and Gov. Ron DeSantis to fill local school boards with conservative members.

Jenkins chairs a new political action committee called Educated. We Stand, which says it is “solely dedicated to blunting the progress of far-right school takeovers.”

“Our schools have become a battleground for basic truths and rights,” Jenkins said in a video. “And politicians like Ron DeSantis are pushing hateful anti-democratic policies and targeting school board members who fight back.”

In 2022, DeSantis’ political committee spent about $2 million to support school-board candidates in nonpartisan races. The committee endorsed 30 conservative candidates, many of whom won seats.

The Legislature has placed a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that seeks to shift from nonpartisan school-board elections to partisan elections beginning in 2026. The measure will appear on the ballot as Amendment 1.

NO CHANCE

DeSantis said Monday there is “zero” chance his wife, First Lady Casey DeSantis, will run in 2026 to succeed him as governor.

“If I had to characterize her interest in getting into the political thicket as a candidate, I would say, I would characterize it as zero,” DeSantis said during an appearance in Coral Gables.

The governor, who is barred by law from seeking a third term in 2026, acknowledged that people are interested in Casey DeSantis running. But he said “she’s had a front row seat on all the nonsense that goes on when you do it.”

Casey DeSantis is one of numerous names that have been floated to run for governor, but no prominent candidates have opened campaign accounts. Among the Republican names have been Congressmen Matt Gaetz, Byron Donalds and Michael Waltz, Attorney General Ashley Moody, Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson and Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez.

SOCIAL MEDIA POST OF THE WEEK: “I am not under a gag order, so I can speak out. My priority is to protect the United States & uphold the US Constitution. If you have a situation where justice is being weaponized for political purposes, members of Congress have a RESPONSIBILITY to stand in opposition to that.” — U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (@ByronDonalds), as former President Donald Trump stands trial in New York on criminal charges.


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