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Speaker spends $600,000 on PR

With a budget crisis looming, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's staff defends the publicity costs.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 8, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Johnnie Byrd is spending $600,000 in salaries to promote the House at a time when the governor is proposing deep cuts in services.

Six of the 13 House communications staffers are former Republican Party operatives.

The Plant City Republican also is spending tens of thousands more on several Tampa-area companies, including photo studios in Tampa and Plant City and a video production firm in Crystal River, to handle a variety of publicity work. One company charges the state $600 a day.

Byrd's image-making operation may be the most lavish state government has ever seen.

By comparison, Gov. Jeb Bush employs eight people at an annual cost of $359,000, and Senate President Jim King has one $44,000-a-year spokeswoman who shares a student intern with other Senate staffers. Eight of Byrd's staffers make more than that.

The latest details on Byrd's publicity operation were released at a news conference by his staff Friday in response to mounting press requests from reporters for records. Byrd was not at the news conference; aides said he was on his way home to Plant City.

The disclosures come as Bush is asking the Legislature to raise college tuition, reduce services for troubled children and shut down the state library.

When Byrd became House speaker three months ago, he offered a vision of less government, lower taxes and "living within our means." He also vowed to take communication "to the next level."

Aides could not provide a price tag for the most expensive and controversial of Byrd's public relations contract: a telemarketing operation to place recorded phone calls to voters and conduct opinion surveys on issues.

Byrd staffers said he has not added to the House payroll, but merely shifted jobs from other areas, mostly from the majority office.

Byrd's communications director, Todd Reid, said the staff is nonpartisan and will help Democrats. But the staff has strong ties to the Republican Party and two of Byrd's closest political allies.

Sam Rashid, a Valrico businessman who has been a loyal supporter and fundraiser for Byrd, recommended four of the employees and Mike Corcoran, a lobbyist and political consultant on the House campaigns last fall and a former aide to Byrd, also recommended four.

Michael Manley, who is paid $39,000 a year as a researcher in the communications office, attended a community college and two universities but he did not graduate. From 1996 to 1999 he was a sports referee in the Plant City recreation department.

On his resume, Manley listed his previous job as an employee for the Republican Party of Florida, as a House liaison to "aid and assist House representatives in campaigning, fund raising, etc."

Democrats say Byrd's media operation is an effort to promote his name in preparation for a statewide campaign in 2004, and to make sure Republican incumbents are re-elected in two years.

House Democratic Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, said most Floridians would rather see the money spent for student financial aid or to increase teacher salaries.

"I think that sends the wrong message, when we have tight budget times and have to make some very difficult decisions, that we would choose to spend our dollars on an advertising campaign for politicians in Tallahassee," Wiles said.

Byrd sent a memo to House members on Jan. 29 outlining his plan for an "Enhanced Member Communication Program." The components include TV and radio news feeds, streaming video and audio on the Internet, a new House Web site, myfloridahouse.com, and automated phone calls.

He cautioned lawmakers: "Because we are moving toward the ability to communicate directly with our constituents without the 'filter' of the media, there has been some expected media criticism about the prospect of better communication with constituents. It is important to remember that there are certain interests that wish the process to remain mysterious, such as the media . . . and the lobbyists, who wish to be the only access to the people's process."

He added: "I believe that a well-informed electorate is vital to the strength of our democracy."

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