Before the state abruptly dropped grand-theft charges against former House Speaker Ray Sansom, it offered a tantalizing scrap of evidence to show that the Panhandle Republican had falsified an item in the state budget.
When Sansom chaired the House Appropriations Committee in 2008, $6 million popped into the budget for a multi-use education project at Northwest Florida State College. It turned out to be an airplane hangar, with a few classrooms, near a Destin airport, where it could be used often by a wealthy friend of Sansom's who was a major donor to the Florida Republican Party.
A staff note hand-scrawled on the budget amendment said just, "per s.d."
Enough said. As everyone on the appropriations committee staff understood, that meant "per speaker-designate."
In addition to being chairman of the budget committee, Sansom was next in line to be speaker of the House. That meant he could not only remove anything you sought in the current budget, he could make sure none of your bills got a hearing in the two years that he would be speaker.
In the military, they say "rank hath its privileges" and in Washington, they say, "to get along, go along." In Tallahassee, this is "a turkey" -- something that gets funded not because it's needed by the people, but because it's wanted by someone with the power to make Florida taxpayers buy going-home gifts for a few members. It's not new or illegal and, despite all the pious pronouncements of politicians -- Remember Gov. Rick Scott saying he'd change how business is done in Tallahassee? -- it's not likely to change, ever.
Florida TaxWatch, a policy-analysis group that carries a large stuffed turkey to news conferences, recently released its annual turkey report. The criteria, generally, are that an item serves little or no statewide purpose, was not sought by the governor or any state agency, did not go through the normal evaluation process of public committee hearings, and/or seems to be the spawn of individual legislators who can pull the strings of a $70 billion purse.
Last week, TaxWatch flagged 159 appropriations -- down from 203 last year -- that it considered to be gobbling at the public trough, adding up to more than $150 million.
Gov. Scott vetoed a record $615 million in such projects last year, but says to expect fewer vetoes today, when he signs the state's $70 billion spending plan into law.
As even TaxWatch will tell you, being a "turkey" isn't always bad. An item might serve a very good public purpose; it just grows wattle, beak and feathers by virtue of its authorship or its failure to go through the regular legislative process. In fact, TaxWatch noted that 72 of the 159 items on this year's list -- worth a total of $82.6 million -- were slipped into the budget by a joint conference committee -- the bosses who assemble after the full House and Senate pass their separate versions of the budget and send the whole bundle behind closed doors.
Among some of this year's TaxWatch turkeys was a $5 million emergency operations center for Glades County. There also is $500,000 for a Bay of Pigs Museum. Also some little items, like $25,000 for a firehouse cultural center in Hendry County and $35,000 for a study of Lake Panasoffkee in Lake County.
These may be fine, long-needed, public-spirited expenditures. But that's not why they're in the budget.
More often, they're in there as rewards for good service, like your boss giving you a Christmas turkey. This guy voted with us on redistricting, give him a new roof for his high school gym. She might be in re-election trouble and we need her, so let's four-lane that road in her district. I'm the chairman and I'm cutting the pie, anybody mind if I help myself?
Turkeys can be the grease that keeps the machinery running smoothly, getting the necessary 61 votes in the House and 21 in the Senate to pass a budget as the 60-day session runs out. Or they can be trophies for past loyalty and forward-payment in tribute to the privileged power of incoming leadership.
This year's TaxWatch Turkey Report was decorated with a fitting quotation from the 19th century congressman John Randolph: "The most delicious of all privileges -- spending other people's money."
Bill Cotterell, retired senior writer for the Tallahassee Democrat, has covered Florida government and politics since 1969.