Bush shields fund for land
By ALISA ULFERTS and CRAIG PITTMAN
TALLAHASSEE -- Environmentalists frequently remind people that Gov. Jeb Bush is a land developer by trade.
Still, they stood and cheered Wednesday when Bush announced he was blocking a $100-million raid by lawmakers on a popular landbuying program. To plug the hole that veto created, Bush axed another $107-million in lawmakers' pet projects from the $50-billion state budget.
"It is great to put the 'forever' back in the Florida Forever program," Bush said of the conservation program.
Previously when environmentalists gathered to listen to Bush, they were more waving signs of protest, not praise, and the switch appeared to surprise Bush, who smiled and nodded his acknowledgement.
Eric Draper, conservation director of Audubon of Florida, hailed Bush as "incredibly courageous" because the vetoes could anger a lot of legislators.
And Bob Bendick, director of the Nature Conservancy's Florida chapter, called Bush's decision "a good and courageous act on behalf of the environment of Florida."
It was the second time in two weeks that Bush won the praise of environmentalists. Last week, he and his brother, President Bush, announced a deal to buy drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico and a federal preserve near the Everglades.
But the Democratic Party criticized the budget Bush signed Wednesday, accusing the governor of staging a campaign event.
"The only thing that was missing were balloons and a Bush-Brogan banner," said Democratic Party spokesman Ryan Banfill, referring to Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. "This is an election year budget."
Senate Democratic leader Tom Rossin of Royal Palm Beach said the budget "pads the pockets of special interests but fails Florida's schools and families."
Bush has claimed a $1.1-billion increase in education spending in this budget over the last, an increase critics say all but disappears when last year's budget cuts plus growth and inflation are factored in.
Bush's vetoes were about a third of what he has cut in previous budgets.
By diverting $100-million from the Preservation 2000 and Florida Forever land-buying programs, lawmakers avoided cuts in government services and kept a $262-million corporate tax break.
Hillsborough, Volusia and Brevard counties passed resolutions urging the governor to block the raid. Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt called Bush's decision "fantastic."
"The Florida environment won one," Platt said.
It was the second time the Legislature tried to solve its budget woes by tapping an environmental fund.
Bush's veto should be a warning to lawmakers about siphoning money out of those funds, said Kathy Baughman of the Trust for Public Land's Tallahassee office.
"It's a big message," she said. "I think they're going to think twice before they do it again."
Bush has been urging lawmakers for three years to pass a budget free of turkeys, pet projects that benefit only a lawmaker's district.
Bush vetoed about $300-million in turkeys from each budget for the past three years, squeezing yelps from lawmakers who depend on the Little League fields, festivals and swimming pools to curry favor with voters back home.
Florida TaxWatch, a nonprofit government watchdog group, urged Bush to veto the same amount again this year.
Instead, Bush lopped off $107-million in pet projects, a decrease he attributed to lawmakers' willingness to follow his guidelines.
"They went through the process that we had asked," Bush said. That process included a committee hearing and a state agency's approval of the item.
Yet Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, said Bush vetoes seemed arbitrary this year.
"I think it was very unfortunate that every major item requested by the Pinellas County Commission was vetoed," said Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. Those items included the Park Boulevard and Curlew Creek drainage projects. Those projects were each supposed to get $500,000.
"At the same time the governor saw fit to fund $8-million to relocate the Panama City Airport to benefit a private developer," Latvala added, referring to the St. Joe Co., which wants to move the airport to increase the value of its vast Panhandle landholdings.
But Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, although not happy with several of his projects that got vetoed, said he thought Hillsborough did pretty well overall.
Bush vetoed the $1.9-million Miller wanted for a stroke program at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital, and $100,000 for an Alzheimer's program in the county.
State Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, was disappointed that some local drainage projects were cut but happy that Bush spared funding for the Salvation Army Children's Village, which tries to keep together families in crisis.
Some lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Jim King, R-Jacksonville, have said they would like to see more money in the state's rainy day fund. Bush said Wednesday that there are other accounts the state could use in an emergency if needed.
Senate President John McKay's district, which includes parts of Manatee and Sarasota counties, took some veto hits, but not enough to bother McKay.
"Overall, Manatee and Sarasota counties fared well, with most of the projects surviving the veto pen," McKay, R-Bradenton, said in a statement.
"It is regrettable, however, that the governor vetoed funding for the Community High School, an alternative education facility and an outgrowth of the Governor's A+
plan," McKay added.
Bush clashed with McKay over the Senate president's ambitious plan to eliminate nearly 100 sales tax exemptions and cut the sales tax rate, but Bush said that didn't factor into his vetoes.
"There was no retribution in this budget in terms of my actions," Bush said.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire