If you’ve never heard of Bailey’s Mill, you’re not alone.
Neither had anyone else.
The mysterious parcel of land somehow found its way into a state budget, with a $2.7 million appropriation for the state to purchase the property. There was just one problem: Nobody in state government seemed to know where it was, why the state wanted to buy it, what the state would do with it upon purchase or how much it would cost to maintain.
“You don’t want to spend $2.7 million to buy a piece of property that nobody even knows where it is,” Florida TaxWatch’s Robert Weissert told members of the Ponte Vedra Republican Club last week.
Bailey’s Mill was but one example of what Florida TaxWatch calls a “budget turkey” that Weissert shared with club members at the group’s June luncheon, held June 2 at the Sawgrass Golf Club. Weissert stressed that budget turkeys aren’t simply budget items that the nonpartisan think tank and government watchdog group doesn’t like. Rather, he said, the designation is applied to appropriations that are added to the budget without following the proper procedures or being subjected to proper legislative scrutiny.
“These are items in the state budget that circumvent the traditional budget process,” said Weissert, noting that Bailey’s Mill was vetoed following its designation as a budget turkey. But the turkeys, he added, are really a byproduct of Florida TaxWatch’s ongoing efforts to research and analyze the state budget.
“Taxes are important – budgets are important,” Weissert told attendees. “Florida state government spends about $10 million an hour – and by the time we go to bed tonight, Floridians will spend an average of $40 on taxes today. Some will pay a lot more.”
Among the reports the group publishes is an annual booklet detailing how Florida compares to other states in terms of taxes. The organization also analyzes and makes recommendations regarding funding issues such as pensions, an issue about which Republican Club members were keenly interested. Responding to questions on the topic from the audience, Weissert acknowledged that virtually the only employees today still receiving pensions are public employees – just one indication, he said, that government operates under a different set of rules than the private sector.
“In business, you figure out what your revenues are and then you budget to expend that revenue,” he said. “In government, you figure out what you want to spend and then raise taxes to cover the expenditures.”
Weissert noted that the Florida Retirement System is one of the best-funded pensions systems in the country, at 86 percent funded. That leaves an unfunded liability of $20 billion.
“If this were a private company, someone would go to prison, because that is a very large unfunded liability for a company to be carrying,” Weissert said. “But instead, Florida’s lauded as one of the best pension funds in the country.
“It’s a very well-run plan, but the system is set up to fail,” he continued. “It’s unsustainable.”
Ultimately, Weissert said, the group views its role as providing independent analysis and oversight on behalf of Florida residents who don’t have time to pore through the 4,000 line items in the state budget.
“Keeping an eye on spending,” he said, “is really the only way we can control government.”