TALLAHASSEE – Southwest Ranches describes itself glowingly as a rural, Old Florida time-warp of a town near Fort Lauderdale, complete with “donkeys braying, roosters crowing, and no sidewalks.”
But the farming community of 7,000 on the edge of the Everglades still needs some of the modern amenities of urban-living: the town submitted a wish-list of more than $30 million for road widening and paving, a canal, street lights, and parks to the Florida Legislature this year.
For lawmakers, the state’s economic rebound has re-kindled a feeding frenzy for hometown projects. The competing, $75 billion House and Senate budget plans lawmakers will hash out over the next three weeks are littered with hundreds of requests that lawmakers made for hometown water projects, street repairs, sea walls and even a gun range, according to budget records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
“Yes, there were more requests this year,” said Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “I think that’s based on the fact that our revenue picture was brighter than in past years, and I think there was some pent up demand.”
Negron has pushed for $127 million in water-cleanup projects included in the Senate budget. At the behest of GOP budget-writers, Southwest Ranches landed $478,000 for guardrails.
Even after lawmakers resolve their spending differences, the hometown projects will have to withstand Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen after session ends in May.
And the governor will have a raft of choices.
House lawmakers submitted more than 350 requests for projects, including everything from $200,000 to re-locate a lighthouse in Cap San Blas in the Panhandle, to $1.2 million for a BMX Olympic training facility in Pinellas County. SkyRise Miami, the planned 1,000-foot observation tower downtown, would score $10 million toward its $450 million price-tag.
The IMG Academy in Bradenton -- where top athletes from Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to tennis celebrities Serena and Venus Williams have trained – landed $2.5 million for housing.
Scripps Florida in Jupiter landed $2 million for its research efforts. And House budget-writers set aside $250,000 for Latin American marketing of South Florida’s largest Hispanic fair, the La Feria de Las Américas held at SunLife Stadium in November.
Then there’s $1 million tucked away to help build an NRA-backed gun range in Palm Bay called The Range, which would feature 300-degree simulators, moving targets, a tower and "shoot house" for law enforcement -- at the behest of future House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
“At the end of the day, we’re trying to find projects that benefit a community, or the region or the state,” he said.
Crisafulli’s largest earmark is $10 million for muck removal in the Indian River Lagoon, which has suffered through algae blooms that have killed off hundreds of manatees, pelicans and dolphins since 2011.
Rep. Tom Goodson, a Titusville Republican, wrote a letter to the House’s top budget writer in March asking for $4.3 million in projects from Melbourne to Orlando.
“It is that time of the year again,” he wrote. Goodson’s wish-list included $2 million for a five-acre “Field of Dreams” sports park for the disabled in Melbourne; $1 million to start construction of an East Orange County park and sports complex; and $50,000 for electronic signs at the Mims memorial complex dedicated to slain civil rights leaders Harry T and Harriette V Moore.
All of them made it into the House’s spending plan.
But some Democrats found it harder to get their wishes included.
Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, a first-term Democrat from Maitland, requested $2 million on behalf of the city for six “quiet-zones” at SunRail intersections. She also asked for the environmental cleanup of Mead Botanical Garden in Winter Park, a water project in Eatonville, and road work in Casselberry – all of which got left out.
“I’m a freshman,” Dentel explained. “It just seems like some of the more senior members know how the process works, and they are the ones who have those discussions with leadership.”
One of those veterans is Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat who requested $7 million for hometown projects, including $2 million for a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and $250,000 for an online course at the Poynter Institute, the journalism school which owns the Tampa Bay Times.
Neither of those projects made it in, but he scored $100,000 for St. Pete Ponder House renovations.
Another is Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, who landed $750,000 for Bethune-Cookman University’s “Entrepreneurship Institute,” an effort to provide business training to women and minorities.
Rep. Jose Diaz, a Miami Republican, landed $150,000 to help open a Miracle League of Miami-Dade Ballpark for children with developmental disabilities.
And Rep. Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes, asked for $2 million for the Urban League of Broward County, and $1 million to fund the Florida International Volunteer Corps’ training in the Caribbean and Latin America.
With the help of Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, they got into either the House or Senate budgets.
House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said when it comes to take-home projects political party and seniority mattered less than simply knowing the angles and people in the process.
“Generally speaking, understanding the process and making the case for funding are probably the best indicators of success,” he said.