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    Beaches left out of budget proposal

    President Bush's draft includes cuts in beach renourishment and road building, but Congress will have its say.

    By BILL ADAIR, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 29, 2002


    WASHINGTON -- When President Bush's new budget is unveiled next week, it could hit Floridians in two crucial areas: sand and asphalt.

    Lobbyists and trade groups say they expect the president's budget will include significant cuts for beach renourishment and road construction.

    The president's low-ball request on Monday will be the first round in the annual budget game, but it marks an important starting point for months of jockeying.

    An early draft of the president's budget included no money for Florida beach renourishment projects, according to Howard Marlowe, a Washington lobbyist who represents coastal areas, including several in southwest Florida. By contrast, this year's budget has $30-million for 12 Florida sand projects.

    Overall, the president is expected to propose a 15 percent cut for the Army Corps of Engineers, the agency that oversees the beach projects. It's unclear whether the renourishment cuts would be larger or smaller than the overall amount, but Marlowe warned that the cuts are likely to be deep.

    "I think they are going to be extremely serious," Marlowe said. "I think we're going to have more of an uphill fight than we've had in a decade."

    Likewise, road-building advocates are warning that highway programs could be reduced by 30 percent in the new budget. Those programs are tied to revenue from fuel taxes, which has declined recently.

    The American Road and Transportation Builders Association says the reduction could mean federal highway money in Florida would be cut from $1.3-billion this year to $953-million next year.

    The budget crunch would come at a difficult time. The Florida Department of Transportation estimates that the state is already facing a $22-billion shortfall to meet its highway needs.

    "The long-term effect (of the new cuts) is that we fall further behind in meeting our transportation needs, and our economy suffers," said Gary Brosch, the transportation congressional liaison for the University of South Florida. "The short-term issue is that our economy suffers right away."

    But Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said it makes sense to tie highway spending to the gas tax because it forces Congress to be fiscally responsible.

    "If the money is not there, do not spend it," said Davis. He would like to see that same "pay as you go" approach used for other federal programs.

    A spokeswoman for the Office of Management and Budget declined to discuss the proposed cuts. The president's budget is scheduled to be released on Monday.

    In the annual jockeying, the president often proposes big cuts that Congress is likely to oppose. That creates more room in the initial budget for the president's top priorities and forces Congress to find ways to reconcile the competing desires for money.

    The budget debate is a long battle. The president makes the first offer, but Congress will take until next fall to determine how much to spend. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, the Largo Republican who is chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, has resisted previous attempts to cut beach funding.

    Last year, the Bush administration tried to cut beach renourishment by 5 percent, to $80-million, and tried to force state and local governments to pay a larger share of the costs. But Congress rejected both ideas and approved a $135-million renourishment program -- the largest in history.

    The new cuts in beach funding were applauded Monday by Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group that opposes federal involvement in beach renourishment. Steve Ellis, the group's senior director of water resources, said the administration should keep pressure on Congress to make the cuts.

    "From our standpoint, we say thank you to the Bush administration for cutting the budget," said Ellis. "But now it's time for the administration to defend those cuts."

    -- Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com.

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