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House has peculiar notion of 'principled'

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By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 22, 2003

Hardly a day goes by in Johnnie Byrd's Florida House of Representatives that you don't hear about "principled leadership," typically defined as "cutting the size and scope of government" and "living within our means."

But how "principled" are Byrd's followers?

Take Rep. Don Brown. The second-term Republican from rural De Funiak Springs was Byrd's choice to head a special committee intended to be a forum for opposition to taxes and government spending.

Addressing the group at an early-morning meeting Wednesday, Byrd lamented the tendency of lawmakers to spend every last tax dollar they can find. Brown, a small-town insurance agent, picked up the theme.

"The problem is not a lack of revenue," Brown said. "It may be spending discipline."

But consider Brown's legislative agenda, including the list of pork barrel "community budget requests" he's seeking for his North Florida district.

These projects, known in Tallahassee as "turkeys," make lawmakers look good back home. Some are needed, others are frills.

Brown filed 37 requests for hometown projects, totaling $26-million. His own "spending discipline" includes $750,000 for a multipurpose center in Crestview, $400,000 to renovate a fire station in Holmes County and $200,000 for a Wausau community center. He wants $1.6-million for an agriculture promotion center in Fort Walton Beach. He wants money for EMS shelters, water and sewer lines, and a building in Chipley to store historical documents.

Byrd defends House members, saying they know best about the needs of their constituents. "If they're good things for the state, whether you call them turkeys or anything else, we think they should be done," Byrd says.

Don Brown is different only in that he wants a lot more money than most House members, and because he hews so closely to the less government, less revenue line. The fact is, Republican and Democrats alike seek money for hundreds of similar projects each year.

Rep. Leslie Waters of Seminole wants $190,000 to put solar-powered lights along 6 miles of equestrian trails in Pinellas Park. Rep. Frank Peterman, D-St. Petersburg, wants $100,000 for the Sarasota African-American Chamber of Commerce.

Wait till next year, the Senate says.

Member projects have been eliminated from the Senate budget as part of a broader political strategy to paint the state's revenue picture in starkly depressing terms. To drive home that point, senators produced a form letter to send to their constituents.

"The Senate has decided not to sponsor any member budget requests this year, due to these many unfortunate fiscal circumstances," the letter says. "We feel this is the best step we can take at this time in order to prioritize and serve the needs of all Floridians."

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, went further this week, using words guaranteed to get Byrd's attention: "It would be fiscally irresponsible to entertain individual member projects that come from out of the blue, when we have programs that we are currently not funding in the proposed budget."

"I'll tell you what that is," Byrd responded. "The Senate has boxed themselves into a mantra where everything they want to do depends on putting this idea out that we don't have enough money ... because they want to raise taxes through gambling, and increase the size and scope of government."

The difference, Byrd says, is that the House is "principled."

-- Steve Bousquet is deputy capital bureau chief for the Times.

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