Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, is this week’s featured guest. Florida TaxWatch is the private, non-profit, non-partisan research institute known for holding government leaders accountable for how they spend our hard-earned tax dollars. In our conversation, we talk about budget turkeys, rewarding productivity and how Dominic is able to maintain productive relationships with lawmakers while still being an effective watchdog.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors.
I’m your host Chris Cate, and in this episode created by Salter Mitchell PR, I talk to Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, the private, non-profit, non-partisan research institute, known for holding government leaders accountable for how they spend our hard-earned tax dollars. In our conversation we talk about turkeys, [00:00:30] rewarding productivity, and about how Dominic is able to maintain productive relationships with law makers while still being an effective watchdog, and you can hear it all right now.
Dominic, thanks so much for being on the show. Most people know you from your work at Florida TaxWatch because you’ve been with the organization since 1980, a year after it was created. But I want to start by asking about what you were doing before TaxWatch. You actually went to seminary, is that right?
Dominic Calabro: Yes, I was at Catholic Seminary. The joke is, though, I like to say there’s no life before or after [00:01:00] Florida TaxWatch. Chris, I’ve been very, very blessed. I went to … I did actually some internships in the state capital before, one of which, worked in the Senate ways and means committee, but yes, I’ve been blessed to have a very, very excellent background.
I was a poor kid, I mean, I came from a working family. My dad was a car mechanic. They’re first generation Italian-American immigrants. They weren’t immigrants. Their parents were, but my father couldn’t speak English until he was in [00:01:30] first grade, and my grandfather was born, Dominico was born in 1870.
Chris Cate: Wow.
Dominic Calabro: My dad was born in 1920, and I was born in 1956. They really want us to kind of amalgamate in, and so they really didn’t have … While education was important, hard work and all, and character was as or more important, but it really wasn’t until I had the blessing of going to a college prep high school seminary, St. John Vianney, a minor seminary in Miami that really opened up the world for me to understand [00:02:00] not just academics. It was one of the best high schools in the state at the time academically, and priests were good, rigorous teachers, but it really helped me think about bigger thoughts. I remember thinking at a younger age, who do I want to be? And thinking, “Oh my God, I’m so young. It’s not who am I, it’s who do I want to be?” And I kinda made some of those decisions. But I knew that there was a greater purpose.
Ironically, as [00:02:30] I was graduating college, I was an advocate for this developmentally disabled boy, Anthony, when I was a junior in college at Florida National University. I was getting my degree in social work. And so I actually do have a background, a masters in social work. I finished my second masters in public finance and budgeting. But with Anthony, I thought I’d be a special ed teacher, maybe that would be a calling. [00:03:00] I realized I didn’t have the patience. But I remember writing a story or column, one of the first publications, “Why I am a Citizen Advocate.” And it’s actually on the wall around the corner. It speaks to what I do today.
It’s gone around, come around. It’s a full and complete circle. It’s partly what makes Florida TaxWatch so different as a watchdog, it’s much more constructive, in some [00:03:30] ways a bit more compassionate, a bit more forward-looking than a lot more traditional watchdogs are. They just bite you and find out what’s wrong, tear things down.
TaxWatch is about building a better Florida, and I’m just thrilled that we’re able to convince the board and the founders that’s the area we should move towards.
Chris Cate: Yeah, and you mentioned you did do some work as an analyst in the Senate before getting connected with TaxWatch. When you first joined the organization it was really [00:04:00] new, it was only a year into the organization. What was the state of Florida politics like at the time? Was it really in need of a watchdog group or what really compelled the founders to start it?
Dominic Calabro: You know, it’s probably a much greater need today than it was 35, nearly 40 years ago. They were really thinking … It was really two statesmen. Senator Phil Lewis, who was president of the Senate, and Senator Ken Plant. Ken’s [00:04:30] a Republican, Phil’s a Democrat. But there was really this calling that people of the business community would find a tax increase, but they didn’t look at how they spent money, and so I think really, Florida actually was doing very well when Florida TaxWatch was formed.
We had one of the most progressive … By progressive, I don’t mean liberal, but I mean really thoughtful, solid structure, good governance of a legislature that was really well respected. In fact, people from other countries would come [00:05:00] to look at how Florida’s legislature was structured and so forth. We had a much more independent legislature because in the late 60s, early 70s, the legislature moved from biannual sessions to the late 70s, annual sessions. They put in a different auditor general, and staff.
But I think you’re looking for what makes TaxWatch different than in other states was we were founded to help [00:05:30] people better understand their government. Rather than create new data, it was to help people better understand and connect with and understand their government but also help them build a better Florida. So, more active, constructive signed space. But rather than just be a watchdog along, but also to be a guide dog and a bird dog to help build a stronger government so that you could take the towns, the private sector, all different sectors and with the help of a professional staff, [00:06:00] work towards making government, the private sector in our economy, education, all the factors that make Florida oh so special and wonderful, more effective. I think also more efficient.
Chris Cate: Being a government watchdog means you’re gonna upset a lot of lawmakers, because you’re really calling them out. How do you balance the relationship so you can work with them while also still being able to hold them accountable?
Dominic Calabro: I think the most important … and I find with most of them is being engaged [00:06:30] with them. If you’re constructive, you’re factual, constructive, and you’re trying to do the right thing and you’re not petty, you’re not partisan, and you can demonstrate it over a long period of time, that independence and that track record really begins to speak for itself. And also being civil. Even if at times some have not been through the years, past years, not been entirely civil with us, we don’t respond in kind. We are always humble and kind, [00:07:00] but stick to the facts. We are unrelenting. We are here before and after most of them and well, we don’t do so in the arrogant fashion. We’re very constructive because what we’re trying to do is what many legislators really, really want, and I’ve heard this from Democratic leaders, Republican leaders that what TaxWatch really wants to do, there’s a strong urge. And many times, TaxWatch gives them the legitimacy to do what they know they ought to do, and give them a little bit of comfort.
The balancing [00:07:30] act is, on the one hand, we hold them accountable, but many times at some … Like, the turkey watch is really controlled by a small handful of people, and many of the others feel disenfranchised because they don’t get as much or it’s not done properly, so it’s really a trip to power sometimes, and so long as you’re honest, forthright, consistent, over time that really speaks volumes, and it’s allowed us to have a very constructive language with [00:08:00] the minority party, the majority party, and leaders that come and go.
Chris Cate: And speaking of those turkeys, most people are familiar with TaxWatch, are familiar with your annual turkey list, but for listeners not familiar with the turkey, can you explain what a budget turkey is and maybe share a few of your favorite examples of turkeys through the years.
Dominic Calabro: Yeah. The joke is, the turkey’s unnecessary, unwanted, inappropriate expenditure. It’s someone else’s district or community. No, the project [00:08:30] falls under our list of the turkeys somewhat of a narrative like pork barrel spending. It’s really how to … I’m giving into the budget. The turkey watching process is designed to make sure there’s integrity, there’s accountability, and that the tax dollars have a reasonable chance of being well-spent, particularly for the purpose. When an item gets funded outside that process, that the legislature’s creating by law [00:09:00] or by process or by policy, then an appropriation’s made directly to an organization, and the governor of the executive agencies cannot hold them accountable. They just spend the money, even if it’s not gonna produce a real benefit. There are no re courses, because once it’s appropriated, they’re entitled to it, unless there’s some criminal activity. Without showing its purpose and having accountability controls, that’s what happens.
A couple that come to light, one was [00:09:30] the University of West Florida, wanted to build a football stadium at the University of West Florida, but there was no football team, so I think Bob Graham at the time kind of nipped that one in the bud.
The other one that comes to mind is West Florida again, because West Florida’s been kind of notable for these kind of things. Speaker Designate Ray Sampson [00:10:00] was gonna put a private airport, auxiliary set of buildings that were supposed to be connected with a community college out in West Florida. It was on our turkey list because it wasn’t authorized or approved. Unfortunately the governor did not veto it, and that’s why we had that big …
Chris Cate: You got a lot of legal trouble.
Dominic Calabro: Fire troubles, yeah, we had a grand jury, again, they reiterated everything that TaxWatch had talked about. The beauty of the [00:10:30] TaxWatch report is that it’s actually created a process by which we fund historic preservation grants, a number of water project, a number of transportation projects. It creates order to our basic legitimate functions, but also it’s the American way. Things have to follow the process. When you jump in line, and you were the fifth year but you get up to the first year, you know, you’re jumping ahead. It’s unamerican, it’s inappropriate, and it’s unfair. It’s a trip to power, we call it out, and the beauty [00:11:00] of it is that governors, Republican and Democratic alike have vetoed, on average, about 70%, four times as much as 90%, and a number of times fewer than that, but have added over three billion dollars worth of items to save taxpayers. Most importantly, it improves the process.
It’s actually a bit of a subtitle, called Turkey Watch dot, dot, dot, improving analysis of the integrity, accountability, of [00:11:30] the budget process.
Chris Cate: Voters never like turkeys when they’re for somebody else, it’s really easy to make that case. But they really like turkeys when it’s in their own district if it means a new park or something. How do you convince voters not to fall into that trap of reelecting legislators that bring home the most turkeys? Because oftentimes, they’re running their campaigns on what they bring home to their district.
Dominic Calabro: You know, Chris, that’s a really good point. It’s the point of showing that there’s no free lunch. If you get three million dollars [00:12:00] of budget turkeys that were questionable, inappropriate, and unaccountable, that’s three million dollars that early learning, on core functions of government, maybe social services, maybe service to the developmentally disabled. There are a lot of areas that we’re not funding 100%. If they’re funded 100%, there’s just a difference between budget turkeys or tax cuts or putting money in the bank. That’s one thing. But more often than not, we’re spread so thin [00:12:30] that we’re not funding things and budget turkeys do the following, they crowd out, they take away money from legitimate core functions of government, two, they diminish the overall public’s confidence in the government, because it’s like they’re spending money with abandon, without disregard, in the words of Ronald Reagan, like drunken sailors, but their own money.
It’s the idea of being appropriators versus statesmen. Being an appropriator comes [00:13:00] with a very strong fiduciary responsibility. Yes they have discretion, but that discretion is not without limits. The limits are described clearly in the Constitution. The limits are all about not just your district, but state government as a whole, when you swear to uphold the Constitution of the United States and Florida.
Those are the basic things. I think governors have responded, Democratic and Republican alike, in fact, TaxWatch has helped set the criteria for well over 30 years that these different governors have in use.
Chris Cate: [00:13:30] I believe you had 111 turkeys identified in the last session. How does the last session from 2017 compare to your typical session that you’ve been watching over the years?
Dominic Calabro: They get really odd. Now, Chris, 35 years is a long time to see all these things change. And oftentimes they’ve … Legislators and staff try to cleverly get around it, but this time what we really saw was a speaker, who actually had [00:14:00] a lot of good ideas. Speaker Richard Corcoran really wanted to reign in a lot of this and have no special items. Budget turkeys are items. But the one, and I thought it was fine, though we thought it may be inappropriate, but I think they agreed to look at it like any kind of legislature. It’s good so long as we recognize it’s [00:14:30] the Florida House and the Florida Senate. The governor is the … Well, he’s not the final arbiter, the House and the senate can override him, which is extremely rare when you have a governor of the same political party, which we have.
I think it started out well-intentioned, but what we’re gonna do soon, everything else will fall into place. You just gotta remember it’s a bicameral legislature and even though they [00:15:00] may push strong, you do have to respect the process, and you got agreement on some of those key principles, the Senate, I think the taxpayers are far better off.
I think … I hope that in 2018 we’ll take a lot of the good principles that Speaker Corcoran wanted about the budget process and have them embedded with concurrence by the Senate. The senate wants far more discretion, the house wants far less. There’s a reasonable middle ground that they can get at, [00:15:30] where the citizenry would be better served and their constituents would be better served. No one gets a free lunch, it costs us somewhere somehow.
Chris Cate: You don’t always play the bad guy when it comes to state government. You also get to give provincial productivity awards to state employees who, like the word goes, increase productivity. Why does having an award program like this so important to your overall mission?
Dominic Calabro: Well, first of all, the TaxWatch has really taken on a mission from its founding, it’s early days, particularly when I [00:16:00] took the leadership of the company from a very young age, to be constructive. To build a better Florida, not just to tear it down, not just to be about waste and so forth. We wanted to do something that would promote good stewardship. What we’ve done and I’m glad to say that Florida TaxWatch has three things that no one else in the country does, no other organization does. In fact, there’s no group nationally does this, and that’s really cool. One, of course, is the [00:16:30] budget turkey lunch. The national level talk about pork barrel spending, but they can’t do a damn thing about it. We have real results. Real outcomes.
Two, we have the productivity awards that recognizes, rewards, and replicates excellence in state government. Some over ten billion dollars over the last 29 years, at an average of almost 300 million a year. That’s so important, because TaxWatch is [00:17:00] a scientific research institute, so we developed the program with researchers at FSU looking at motivation, what motivates groups, individuals, and organizations to perform or not perform. We said, how do we duplicate that, because … we’re actually not just about looking good, as [inaudible 00:17:17] said, but actually doing good. It really shocks people when they look at the track record, they look at the innovations, they look at what we do to improve the human spirit, and that’s really what the [00:17:30] TaxWatch productivity awards are all about. We want to recognize excellence in state government, create a culture when that occurs. People when they receive the awards, it’s been so monumental to them and their families that they often now include it in their obituary in a prominent fashion. This is one of the few ways that they’ve been recognized.
Most importantly, what it does, is we want to elevate the human spirit because we know people can do so much more. From a business point of view, [00:18:00] every employer understands that she or he cannot get a damn thing done without confident, inspired, employees. I’ve said this during the depths of the great recession, that when you’re working people with thinking jobs, creative jobs, the employer’s not at the top of the heap. The employee is. She or he … What I have been often recognizing, can give you the best, [00:18:30] or just the sufficient level of their best. The key is if you can create a culture where you make some mistakes, but you’re innovative, you want to recognize what’s excellent, you’ll elevate that performance productivity, as been shown by Harvard Business review and so many of scientific analysis, you’ll improve performance and make government, most of them make Florida better. We’re helping make Florida the best state in the nation.
Chris Cate: [00:19:00] The third thing that separates you has to do with your work with principals and schools.
Dominic Calabro: Oh yeah, yeah.
Chris Cate: Give a …
Dominic Calabro: That’s a more recent one, Chris, and it’s really, really cool. It came to us from one of our founders, former senate president Phil Lewis, dear, dear friend of mine, among one or two others. We went to the US Senate Secretary Artie Duncan, secretary of education under President Barack Obama. I think he did a great, great job. And I asked him, if he knew of a program, because we want [00:19:30] to nurture great principals, particularly where there are poor schools, schools or school where English was spoken as a second language. He said, no, he didn’t. At the national level, the state level, or the local level. And I asked him, how important would it be? He said absolutely, we’ll re-verify. The literature said that the great teachers stay at schools because of great principals. Great principals will make a terrible school great in three or four years, and a bad principal will make [00:20:00] a great school terrible in one or two years. We said, how do we find that special juice that really will really impact kids lives?
We know empirically that a bad teacher one year, a kid can get by. You get a same student, bad teacher for two years in a row, really hard. Third year, really, really hard. Well, the principal creates the atmosphere, the culture, and all the activities and the accountability where that happens. Now that we have the [00:20:30] TaxWatch principal leadership and awards program, we do several things. First, we find the best three elementary, best three middle, best three high schools, where the principals have been there three years or longer, they’ve been the ones who’ve made the difference, we get the information from the state department of education, we have a scrub, do algorithms from the Florida State University researchers, and we find those principals, so we get the best of the best, and we also give the prepaid scholarship programs to [00:21:00] those three elementary, three middle … So it gets those students some incentive to perform better. Last, but not least, there’s a new state law … I think will be transformational, that will make the delivery of education and great leadership in our school so transformational.
The bottom line is, we know that leadership matters. Leadership really, really matters in the classrooms, and I’m excited that TaxWatch is at the forefront of helping to do this.
Chris Cate: [00:21:30] There are a lot of organizations that claim to be watchdog groups, that have a smaller contribution, but in practice, they’re really only created to get a candidate elected, or in some cases really just ensure a candidate loses. With so much misinformation out there and new organizations being created every day, has it changed the way you try to set yourself apart from other organizations?
Dominic Calabro: You know, not really, Chris. We really, truly never have been involved in raiding [00:22:00] legislators in any way, shape or form the political aim of it. There are still organizations that say they’re nonpartisan, and I think our record has shown that we really, truly are nonpartisan. We focus on why, not who, and it’s been easy for us. It’s never been a real issue. We feel good about where we are acting in that regard.
We work just as well … When speaking trip to power, people want something that is not correct, don’t like what you do, then we have [00:22:30] to still tell it.
Chris Cate: I want to transition to four questions that I ask every guest each week. The first being is, who is a Florida leader who you admire?
Dominic Calabro: Well, I’d have to say the founders of TaxWatch, in particular, besides Stewart Jenkins and Jay Davis. Jay was like my godfather in some ways. I’d have to say 100% Phil Lewis, former senator Ken Plant, just giants in my life. I really do have to say … It sound hokey, but my mom and dad. [00:23:00] My dad just passed away, almost two years ago, has been my hero. But that’s some really, really wonderful people.
But let’s see … public officials, who could not love and respect Leroy Collins. I happen to know him. He sent me this incredible letter. He was very proud of TaxWatch. Just a few months, maybe years before he passed, but also Governor Rubin Askew. I’d say Governor Jeb Bush. We’ve had Democrats and Republicans alike. Some of them I was [00:23:30] just was able to help recognize was Governor Bob Martinez. He got the Leroy Collins lifetime achievement award from Leadership Florida. One of my early heroes.
Three of the six founders of TaxWatch are lifetime achievement award winners. The first of which is Phil Lewis, from Leadership Florida. I think it speaks well that this organization has men and women who have been great, great leaders. Charlie Gray. My current leadership at Florida [00:24:00] TaxWatch, my chairman, David Man, last year [inaudible 00:24:05]. My good friend and chairman Pat Neal. The senator George LeMieux is my treasurer and [Peach Patel 00:24:14] is my corporate secretary.
But I’d also say there’s some business leaders that are truly … Carol Jenkins Barnett, she’s actually someone who is just a selfless individual. [00:24:30] Some people have a lot of wealth but are totally selfless with it and smart about it, not just giving it away but trying to do things that will … Gifts that keep on giving. I find leaders in almost all walks of life. Partly because we’re looking for them and partly that’s kind of a training list to seek out the audience, to look for the best of people.
Chris Cate: The next question from this final four is what person, place, or thing deserves [00:25:00] more attention than what it’s getting?
Dominic Calabro: I’d say the need to get public pensions under control and reform. They’re out of hand, they’re a big iceberg, and we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg. They put on tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars of liabilities. Florida’s better than most states, but it’s so generous and costly that it’s gonna prevent us from funding the core functions of government.
They were never meant to give people more than 100% [00:25:30] of their salaries. We see people who are making pensions of $200,000 or more. There’s a way to be able to divide the benefits to modest income, particularly teachers, and law enforcement. A lot of the law enforcement people, they’re making a lot, a lot of money. But those who work at our mental institutions, the really challenging places in state government, they’re lower income. We can find a way to ensure that they [00:26:00] have a defined benefit. We’re not just … We used to think, well defined contribution will solve it. No. There’s a defined contribution, which we have, the set amount you pay each year, and defined benefit where you make a contractual obligation. Either one is fine, but they each have their own problems. We’ve got to limit it to something that’s reasonable and sustainable, and I think ultimately, this is gonna be a very serious discussion years to come. Probably not 2018, possibly not 18, but probably [00:26:30] by 2020, or 2022, I think it will. I’d like for us to make sure we have a position that’s innate, that’s thoughtful, that makes people, particularly at the lower income, middle income level, and maybe we limit whatever the benefit is to no more than a median household income of Floridians, so that people can recognize … And then if they want to save their own money, they can do it on top of that.
But that’s a big one, because it forestalls our ability to support.
The second thing I’d say [00:27:00] is infrastructure. From expansion of our airports, our seaports, our roads, bridges, to maintain a population of 20 plus million residents today, plus the 115 million visitors, we’re gonna have to modernize and keep pace with our infrastructure, particularly three things, water, water, water. TaxWatch, I’m proud, was a good contributor with this, helping to get the reservoir [00:27:30] for the Everglades, pointing out the problems of can’t kick the can. Also the cost is too great and so the cost to evacuate is too great and you have to act sooner and we were pleased that we were instrumental in some way in contributing to the solution, not to the problem.
Chris Cate: The last of the questions that I have are a bit lighter. The first being, what’s your favorite Florida place to visit?
Dominic Calabro: Wow. Gosh, I have so many. It sounds terrible to say this. One [00:28:00] I’m really getting to enjoy a lot is Apalachicola. I mean, I do that from time to time. I’m planning to do a trip again shortly. But I mean, I love Tampa, I love Orlando, I love Miami. Miami is just … I lived in Hollywood, Florida for a number of years and actually it was in Miami, and it’s so diverse. It’s so special. It’s so crazy at the same time. [00:28:30] It’s got a lot of fun stuff going for it.
But I think Florida’s got some really incredible … I was just in Lake Bradford last night. We have so much to be blessed to live here for.
Chris Cate: All right, last question. Do you have a favorite Florida sports team?
Dominic Calabro: I’d have to say, just because I was raised on them, I’d have to say probably Miami Dolphins, just because [00:29:00] I was there in the 1971, 72 back to back …
Chris Cate: Undefeated seasons.
Dominic Calabro: Undefeated, yeah. One was a totally undefeated season. But back to back super bowls, that’s just incredible. I was a young men at the time ringing the bells at seminary when that occurred, so yeah … It’s amazing how important sports are a part of culture of Florida for our communities. And seeing what Jeff Vinik has done with [00:29:30] the Lightning in Tampa … It’s amazing what’s happening, what Jack has done. I mean, the point is, I think we’ve got so much to be grateful for. We also have a strong minor league presence as well, we always have, but that has continued.
I think Florida is really the place to be. It’s great to visit elsewhere, but it’s also great to come back home.
Chris Cate: Great. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Dominic Calabro: Thank you.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening [00:30:00] to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app, on Apple podcast and Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too.
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