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Budget woes slingshot patronage ahead of pork

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 23, 2003

Anybody remember the squawking four years ago when Gov. Jeb Bush whacked more than $313-million from the first state budget approved under his watch? The objections came from legislators who recoiled at the vetoes of the pet projects they had stuffed into the budget during fat economic times.

The ill feelings stemmed from the lack of a quid pro quo. Legislators complained they had acquiesced to the governor on his top legislative priority, the A+ plan for education, then didn't get their expected reward -- pork for the district.

This year, there is little money to fight over in the budget. Instead, legislators hope to shield constituents from massive cuts. That also means there can be no repeat of the 1999 vetoes, so there is no fear of pork barrel payback to legislators who don't toe the party line.

As a result, expect the politicking to zero in on the patronage level this year.

As our illustration, we'll use Craig Villanti of New Port Richey, who was just named to the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Lakeland.

Villanti coveted the appeals court job. His close friend is Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. The pair used to fly together to South Florida on Sundays to watch the Miami Dolphins play. Fasano also helped Villanti during his initial, unsuccessful campaign for a judgeship.

Fasano lobbied the governor's office extensively on Villanti's behalf. He cited Villanti's home in Pasco County, saying it would bring geographic balance to the appeals court bench.

This is not intended to disparage the personable Villanti. He is a resonable judge with a strong intellect and keen sense of humor. His neckties are legendary.

So congratulations to newly minted Appellate Court Judge Villanti. He is Pasco's first. But he also is a chit. That is the way patronage works.

At some point, the governor is going to need Fasano's vote on key legislation. It is not difficult to imagine the governor reminding Fasano, either subtly or bluntly: You got your judge. I need your help.

Some might be scratching their heads wondering where Fasano and Bush might differ. These guys are from the same tax-cut wing of the party.

Outside of assembling the budget for the coming year, one of the top legislative issues will be medical malpractice insurance. The governor is looking at capping jury awards for non-economic damages at $250,000.

(Odd how that same figure was tossed around 20 years ago. You would think someone on the insurance side would have adjusted that number upward over the past two decades.)

Regardless, Fasano has a demonstrated loyalty to the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers, the people who have helped his past campaigns, even though his previous leadership positions on health committees in the Florida House of Representatives made him a favorite of doctors, too.

The state Division of Elections data base shows individual physicians donated more than $15,000 to Fasano's 2002 Senate campaign, though the medical community's contributions are much higher when counting help from Political Action Committees and the practice of bundling -- several members of a physician's family or business each contributing the $500 maximum.

The same data base shows individual lawyers contributed more than $41,000, absent PACs and bundling.

As a member of the House, Fasano bucked the Republican leadership, temporarily stepped down as majority whip, and voted against the so-called tort reform bills that ran contrary to the interests of the trial attorneys.

So, how does Fasano feel about capping medical malpractice awards?

"I can support most of the governor's task force recommendations, except I have not been convinced yet that $250,000 is the cap. I'm not leaning that way," Fasano said this week.

He said he thinks some cap will be needed, but advocates tying it to rollbacks on insurance rates, greater accountability of physicians, and requiring insurance companies to assume some responsibility for diminished returns on their investments other than sticking it to consumers via premium increases.

Considering the disparity between Fasano and the governor, it might be a good thing for Villanti his gubernatorial appointment has been made already.

It also might spell trouble for another patronage appointment sought by Fasano: Ed Collins to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

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