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Republicans at the trough: in the states, as in Washington, Republicans are just as fond of pork as Democrats.

In the states, as in Washington, Republicans are just as fond of pork as Democrats

THANKS TO A BOOMING STATE ECONOMY, Florida legislators this year had an extra $2.2 billion and approved their biggest budget ever, $45.3 billion. It was a rare opportunity to meet many pressing needs in a state that ranks near the bottom of per capita spending on education and health care. And indeed, Florida lawmakers used a chunk of the extra revenue to hire new teachers, set aside more endangered land for public use, and expand medical care for uninsured kids. But they also spent as much as $348 million on what in Washington would be called "pork" and what in Tallahassee are known as "turkeys" Among the hundreds of turkeys stuffed in this year's budget: $100,000 to promote the farming of cannonball jellyfish, another $100,000 to buy a trailer to haul catfish for private producers, and $300,000 to wire the outer courts at the Lipton Tennis Center in Key Biscayne to improve television coverage of the pro-tennis tournament held there ever year.

So was this another example of free-spending Democrats? No. In fact, Republicans control Florida's legislature, and what happened in the Sunshine state in 1998 demonstrates that Republicans can be just as liberal in spending taxpayer dollars as Democrats. Narrowly controlling the legislature, Florida's Republican leaders used the budget to reward loyal lawmakers who were pressing to get projects they could bring back home. By doing this, Republicans solidified their power in Tallahassee and throughout Florida. "The budgetary process is the American equivalent of the spoils system," says state Rep. Bill Sublette, a Republican from Orlando who was often critical of how the GOP leadership politicized the budget.

The truth is that Republicans in power--despite all of their anti-spending rhetoric--are just as anxious to spend taxpayers' dollars as are Democrats. Look at what's happening in Washington: Congress just passed a huge, pork-barrel public works bill.

What happens in Tallahassee, Washington, and elsewhere reflects the nature of our political system today, and it's not just the politicians' fault. With their eyes on re-election, pols know they'll be rewarded by their constituents and their campaign contributors if they bring home the bacon--or rather, the turkey. "I could bring $10 billion for the state in education and not get the first thank you," says state Rep. Ken Pruitt, a Republican from Port St. Lucie. "I could bring home $100,000 for a park and have 300 people at the opening?" Said state Sen. Donald Sullivan, a Republican from Seminole who chaired the Senate Finance Committee: "My legislators feel like this is how they'll be graded at home--how much pork they bring back" Conversely, legislators who kill turkeys face scorn from their colleagues and often are rendered ineffective within the legislative body. And lawmakers who don't secure enough turkeys for their districts can expect to see their opponents make hay of the issue.

Buying Friends and Influence

To see why Republicans like to spend money as much as Democrats, let's take a closer look at what happened in 1998 in the Florida legislature. First, a little history. In Florida's November 1996 elections, Republicans captured the legislature for the first time since Ulysses S. Grant was president. Not surprisingly, they were determined not to let Democrats get back into power. When the 1998 legislative session got underway, Republicans controlled the House, 65-55, and the Senate, 24-16, with elections scheduled for November. In Florida, House members run for reelection every two years, and senators are up every four years.

Just like their colleagues nationally, Republicans had taken control of the Florida legislature with the pledge of lower taxes and less government spending. But as in Washington, they jettisoned their campaign promises by deciding to use the budget to solidify their grip on power. This was particularly true in the Florida House, which had been two years behind the Senate in turning Republican. The Republican House leadership wanted not only to count on the 65 Republicans, but also to snag enough Democrats on important issues to have the 80 votes needed to exercise total control of legislation in the 120-member body.

To build the working super-majority, they went after two groups of Democrats. One group is known as the "Blue Dawgs" They are conservative Democrats, typically from rural parts of the state. Blue Dawgs are always looking for state handouts for roads, sewers, courthouses, prisons, and the like. State Rep. Jamie Westbrook, a Blue Dawg who represents a rural district west of Tallahassee, for example, got $300,000 in taxpayer funds to build a community center in Liberty County. "It's a measure of your strength," Westbrook said. State Rep. Scott Clemons, another Blue Dawg, got $55000 to allow Gulf Coast Community College, a Panama City-based institution in Clemons' district, to hire someone next year to lobby the legislature to give Gulf Coast more money.

The other group of Democrats that the Republicans courted consisted of the 15 members of the black caucus. Normally, they would be reliable Democrats. But in January 1998, white House Democrats ousted state Rep. Willie Logan from their leadership team because of complaints that he was too liberal and inattentive to his responsibilities. Logan, an African-American from the Miami suburb of Opa-Locka, was in line to be the Democratic House leader after the 1998 elections--until the white Democrats replaced him. Logan and many of his black colleagues immediately declared themselves "free agents," no longer beholden to the Democratic Party.

Republican House Speaker Dan Webster and his chief deputy, Rep. John Thrasher of the Jacksonville suburb of Orange Park, seized on the Logan affair to create an informal alliance with most of the 15 black caucus members. The black members would support Webster and Thrasher on important votes and speak publicly with them during debate. The Republicans in turn would grant the black lawmakers' turkey requests.

So Logan got $5 million for Florida Memorial College, a private black institution in his district, $275,000 to restore a historic theater in Miami, and $90,000 to renovate a train station in Opa-Locka. State Rep. Beryl Roberts-Burke, who chaired the 'black caucus, got $500,000 for Miami Shores and $300,000 for El Portal, both of which are in her district. In all, the black House lawmakers got at least 53 projects in the budget.

In some cases, Webster and Thrasher gave out turkeys over the complaints of their budget chairmen. State Rep. Sharon Merchant, a Republican from Palm Beach Gardens who chaired the House budget committee that oversaw transportation and economic development projects, initially rejected two of Logan's turkeys: the $275,000 theater renovation and the $90,000 train station repair. She noted that neither project had been discussed or evaluated before her committee. Logan then went to Webster, who overruled Merchant. "It's like they went first to Mommy who turned them down and then they went to Daddy," says Merchant. "The speaker told me he wanted them in the budget so I did. When he gives direction, it gets done" Adam Herbert, chancellor of the Florida state universities system, opposed the $5 million that Logan secured for Florida Memorial College. Herbert didn't think a private college should get so much money when the 10 public institutions he represented are chronically underfunded. Herbert lost out to politics.

Republicans got so out of control this year in putting turkeys into the budget that Sullivan, the Senate Finance chairman, expressed disgust with his colleagues. 'g. feeding frenzy is a good way to put it," says Sullivan. "The more money available, the greater the feeding frenzy. The pressure to spend all of it is tremendous. And I'm talking about Republicans" One Republican lawmaker from Miami, state Rep. Jorge Rodriguez-Chomat, wanted $25,000 to subsidize a Cuban-American newsletter, for example. A Republican lawmaker from Jacksonville, state Rep. Jim Fuller, wanted $100,000 to train 200 Jacksonville educators in "the leadership skills outlined in Stephen Covey's Seven Habits for Highly Effective People" (Neither got the money.)

Sullivan complained that lawmakers were pushing projects with little demonstrated need for taxpayers statewide. Many of them did not provide a written explanation of how a project would be a good use of state taxpayer funds, as they are required to do. Instead, Sullivan complained, they whispered in the ear of the Senate president or of one of the Senate budget subcommittee chairmen under him. In a budget filled with thousands of individual items, Sullivan could not keep track of most turkeys.

Of course, Florida isn't the only state where Republicans use pork to maintain their political ties. In New York, where housing, education, and medical care for the poor are perennially underfunded, last spring's budget included $7 million to subsidize horse-race purses, to be distributed at the discretion of the Senate majority leader, Joseph Bruno (R-43rd). Some of the $350 million in "member items" were killed, but many Republican pet projects remained--including Bruno's request for $500,000 to expand the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs. In Republican-controlled Indiana, there's the Build Indiana Fund, home to an endless list of state lawmakers' projects. Rep. Kathy Kraeg Richardson (R-29th), for example, got a $10,000 gazebo for one of her constituent cities, as well as $100,000 towards a river front promenade, according to the Indianapolis Star.

In Ohio, state Sen. Karen Gillmor (R-Dublin) slipped over $1 million into the 1996-7 operating budget for a memorial to Rutherford B. Hayes, the little-remembered 19th president of the United States who hailed from Fremont, Ohio, a town in her district. Meanwhile, the General Accounting Office ranked Ohio worst in the nation in school buildings, with a $16.5 billion backlog of badly needed construction. Western Republicans, who pride themselves on their rugged thriftiness, were no better. In Idaho, members of the Republican majority, including House Speaker Mike Simpson (R-2nd), tucked away $1 million in 1995 for the Constitutional Defense Fund, bowing to pressure from militant states' rights groups. The fund, designed to protect Idaho from the federal government, has spent only $200,000 since its inception, largely because its mandate duplicates functions already performed by the state Attorney General's office. According to state Rep. Ken Robinson, a Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, the other $800,000, which could be spent on much-needed school construction, languishes in state coffers.

Spending in the Dark

It's worth noting that there's nothing wrong in theory with lawmakers bringing home projects. Indeed, lawmakers should look out for the needs of their districts. The problem comes, as Florida's state Sen. Donald Sullivan noted, when lawmakers cannot provide evidence of why taxpayers in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and Tampa, for example, should pay for Westbrook's community center in rural Liberty County. Or when lawmakers cannot let projects stand public scrutiny so they slip them into the budget at the end of the process. A project becomes a turkey when lawmakers get them funded because of their political clout or as a political reward from the leadership. The biggest beneficiaries are not taxpayers statewide but the lawmakers' re-election campaigns.

It's also worth noting that Florida's budgetary process is much more open and above-board than most states'. Because of the state's extraordinary public records law and open meetings laws, legislators have to make public any budget requests they file with the budget committees, and much of the budget deliberation takes place in public. In Louisiana, in contrast, many of those documents would not be public--or you would have to wait three days to get them--and the deliberations would take place behind closed doors. In Pennsylvania, Democrats and Republicans hold private party caucuses each day before the session begins to plot strategy and count votes. In Florida, reporters could attend those meetings.

The problem in Florida, however, is that the sheer number of member projects and the skimpy information provided for many makes it difficult for responsible legislators and the press to sort out during the 60-day session which are good and which aren't. Sullivan and Merchant both favor requiring lawmakers to submit all of their requests to a panel of state experts in each field to rank the projects before the legislative session begins. The legislature already requires this with cultural and historic projects that lawmakers want funded. Sullivan and Merchant would like this program extended to all projects put forth by legislators. Lawmakers wouldn't have to blindly follow the experts' recommendations, but a list would provide a baseline from which to go by. Any legislators who wanted funding for their low-ranked projects would have to provide compelling evidence of the projects' need.

The debate over turkeys is not an academic one. While it was prime season for turkeys in Florida this year, lawmakers underfunded or did not fund many valuable programs. Instead of funding $350 million of turkeys, the legislature could have spent that money to give health care to 250,000 of the 500,000 poor children in the state who are still not covered. Or the legislature could have spent $268 million to reduce the student-teacher class size ratio to 20-1 from kindergarten through third grade. Or, as Gov. Lawton Chiles requested, the legislature could have spent $23 million to make schools safer, $4.7 million to hire more workers to treat Alzheimer patients and $10.6 million to expand public health centers in poor areas where many people don't get adequate care. The legislature did not fund these Chiles' requests. Lawmakers, however, did load up on money for parks in their districts.

"Is a park in a community serving a public service?" asks state Rep. Buzz Ritchie of Pensacola, the Democrats' House leader. "Yes, it is. But is it a higher priority than providing basic health care needs to children? Not in my mind"

After the legislature approved the budget, Florida TaxWatch, a respected nonprofit research group, complained that "the number of turkeys in this year's state budget is unprecedented and unbelievable" and called on Chiles to use his veto pen liberally. Indeed, Chiles threatened to line-item numerous projects, but Republicans passed the budget early enough this year that Chiles had to act on his vetoes before the legislature adjourned. Republicans warned him that they would override him on many of the vetoes if he did too many, and Chiles would only end up angering many lawmakers. As a further political calculation, Chiles was especially wary of killing the black lawmakers' turkeys and causing them to support the Republican candidate for governor this year, Jeb Bush, the former president's son. Bush is running against Chiles' lieutenant governor, Buddy MacKay. So in the end, Chiles backed off and did not veto enough projects to raise Republican hackles.

Most Republicans declared victory. State Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, a Republican budget hawk from Orlando, did not. "It's outrageous," says Ostalkiewicz. "We broke our pledge. Republicans got elected on the premise that there would be less government, less bureaucracy, less taxes. We lied"

Research assistance provided by Lydia Polgreen.

TYLER BRIDGES covers politics in Tallahassee for the Miami Herald and is author of The Rise of David Duke.
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Title Annotation:waste in government
Author:Bridges, Tyler
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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