Plans for tribute take high road
© St. Petersburg Times
TALLAHASSEE -- Rep. Johnnie Byrd turned critics into allies Wednesday after his proposal to name a Tallahassee road for Ronald Reagan nearly started a legislative civil war.
Byrd, a Plant City Republican who is in line to become House speaker in November, said the proposal was aimed at focusing attention on Alzheimer's disease, which took his father's life on Election Day 1998 and from which the former president suffers.
Controversy erupted after a local newspaper suggested Byrd's bill would force people on the main road leading to the state Capitol to change stationery and advertisements.
Appearing somewhat bewildered by the uproar that filled a House committee room and drew television cameras from several parts of the state, Byrd agreed to derail his bill in return for cooperation from Democrats on a fitting memorial for Reagan and heightened emphasis on Alzheimer's research.
The plan was not to rename Apalachee Parkway, but merely dedicate it to Reagan with signs at either end.
Byrd met with Tallahassee legislators before members of the House Transportation Committee gathered to consider his bill.
"We can all agree that Ronald Reagan was a great American, can't we?" Byrd asked Reps. Loranne Ausley and Curtis Richardson, Tallahassee Democrats.
Ausley nodded. Richardson paused.
"Come on Curtis, spit it out," Byrd said calmly.
Richardson finally conceded that Reagan is "one of many great Americans."
Byrd told the legislators of his father's death and said it increased his interest in Alzheimer's research.
"Some people believe we'll find the cure for Alzheimer's in Minnesota or Boston, but we have some wonderful places in Florida," Byrd explained. "I believe Ronald Reagan was a great American who showed us we could rev up the economy with free market economics, and now he is increasing awareness of Alzheimer's."
Ausley suggested putting all the state money for Alzheimer's into a Ronald Reagan Trust Fund.
Byrd liked that idea and postponed his road bill.
"The main thing is to honor Reagan in a way that transcends the road," Byrd said after the meeting. "Florida is a place that is way ahead in cancer research at places like the Moffitt Cancer Center. . . . If we could really focus our efforts and commit to this, we can find a cure for Alzheimer's."
Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said he was pleased with Byrd's decision to derail the bill but still believes the Legislature should not tinker with the names of local roads without talking to local officials.
Several hours after the House committee meeting, Sen. Rod Smith, D-Gainesville, approached Byrd with a proposal to work together on getting a National Brain Institute to Florida to work with all of its public medical schools on Alzheimer's research. Smith also lost his father to Alzheimer's.
"We ought to be thinking about endowing a chair at the University of Florida for Ronald Reagan," Smith said. "Every family is touched by this disease."
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire