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Legislature

Builders criticize plan to drain housing fund

Industry leaders defend an affordable housing trust fund. The House wants to shift $125-million to balance the budget.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Bankers, builders and other business groups blasted House Republicans on Monday for planning to balance the budget by emptying a fund for affordable housing.

Using words aimed at House Speaker Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, industry leaders said the $125-million "raid" would hurt the construction industry and make it harder for people to own a home.

"The Florida House of Representatives doesn't appear to support the American dream of home ownership," said Steve Lawson, a builder in Naples and a leader of the Florida Home Builders Association.

Noting Byrd's firm opposition to a Senate proposal to pay for schools by adding impact fees to existing home sales, Lawson said: "Maybe it's time for the House to put its money where its mouth is."

The criticism came from groups that usually favor the Republican business philosophy.

Members of the so-called Sadowski Fund Coalition were accompanied by Jean Sadowski, widow of Bill Sadowski, the former House member and state agency director who helped create a stream of money for housing.

The House plan to shift $125-million from the fund passed the House Appropriations Committee Friday 22-11 in a vote that closely followed party lines.

Tampa Bay Reps. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, and David Russell, R-Spring Hill, voted for it, and Rep. Bob Henriquez, D-Tampa, voted no.

The money in question is part of the documentary stamp tax paid by home buyers at closing. Since 1992, some of the tax has been earmarked to leverage with banks and developers to build homes and apartments.

House leaders held their ground, characterizing the housing fund's defenders as special interests.

They said it made no sense for 60 percent of Florida's budget to be squirreled away in separate trust funds, beyond the reach of lawmakers who set spending priorities.

"That's no way for Florida to do its budgeting," said Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, who heads the House Appropriations Committee. Reading from remarks, Kyle said: "That's the old way of governing, the old way of cutting deals to help your friends, hoping no one will be able to see through the smoke and mirrors."

Kyle noted that $194-million remains set aside in next year's House budget to build more housing.

In the future, he said, housing should have to compete with all other programs rather than enjoy status as a "sacred cow."

Byrd questioned whether the housing program really does help working people achieve home ownership. He said the fund enriches "20 or 30 developers" who build mostly large rental complexes.

One GOP lawmaker questioned the wisdom of emptying the housing fund. Rep. Nancy Detert of Venice, a mortgage broker by profession, said: "I think it would be a crime to dismantle something that has worked so well."

By scooping $1.5-billion from trust funds, the House can portray itself as the savior of vulnerable programs. That money helped enable the House to preserve high-profile programs that the Senate proposes to cut, such as the PACE Centers for Girls and the Medically Needy program that covers bills for catastrophic illnesses.

The Senate's plan relies less on trust funds.

Cuts in the House budget are described by Republicans as "savings" or "efficiencies" or "reprioritizations."

[Last modified April 1, 2003, 05:26:22]


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