'Turkeys' may gobble $400-million
By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and his followers boast that their state budget "lives within our means" while leaving out "the pet projects of the past."
But even as House leaders ration dollars for universities and health care for the poor, they have set aside money for softball fields, water taxis, hybrid-fuel vehicles and police radios. The Senate calls such member-sponsored projects "turkeys" and says they add up to $400-million in spending.
It's another reason for the two sides to fight.
"People are directing dollars to their own community, their own city, for their own purpose," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. "I'm not saying those purposes are bad. But in a time when we don't have money, to produce $400-million specifically earmarked for your own ends doesn't make any sense."
Byrd disagrees. He says that money is plentiful and that local projects deserve a place.
"Legislators are the ones who are elected," Byrd said. "They're the ones who should make the final decisions."
Individual projects for the five-county Tampa Bay region total $78-million. More than half of that, $45-million, is for the Alzheimer's Center & Research Institute at USF in Tampa. Byrd's father died of Alzheimer's, and he has made finding a cure his top priority.
Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed nearly $1-billion in projects in his first term. He redefined a turkey to mean projects that were not recommended by a state agency or got no public discussion.
House Republicans say the Senate budget has turkeys, too, but they are hidden in large lump sums, a charge senators deny.
"The reality is, they've got money allocated for their own projects," said Rep. Marco Rubio, R-Coral Gables, the House Republican leader.
Rubio supports one of the biggest House projects: $7-million to buy the historic Freedom Tower in Miami from the influential Mas family and give it to Miami-Dade Community College as a humanities building.
"Do I think its more important than, say, dentures? Course not," Rubio said. "But if everyone else is going to get something, we should have the right to advocate for it."
House Republicans also budgeted $10-million for a rail line between Orlando International Airport and tourist destinations, including Disney World.
Many Democrat-sponsored projects fell by the wayside.
Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, failed to secure $1-million to continue buying medications for low-income epilepsy patients, at an average cost per patient of $1,400 a year.
"It's unbelievable," said Bonnie Skaggs, director of the Suncoast Epilepsy Association. "People with epilepsy could die if they're not taking their medications."
But the House did set aside $225,000 for Pinellas Park to buy 14 hybrid-fuel vehicles and $121,000 for a tropical aquaculture laboratory in Ruskin.
House Democrats say Republicans say one thing and do another. "We're not living within our means in the House," said Rep. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "Cut out some of these frivolous projects."
The House has budgeted $75-million for voter-mandated high-speed rail, but also is considering a bill that asks voters to kill the project.
The Senate considers the rail money a turkey.
One of the most talked about House projects is $100,000 to help build a training center for Olympic, international and college softball players for Altamonte Springs, north of Orlando.
Rep. David Mealor, R-Lake Mary, wrote that the money would match $600,000 in private donations to provide an "endless amount of softball programs."
The House budget also has a $100,000 grant for mobile radios for Oldsmar, and $250,000 for mobile computer terminals for Tarpon Springs police.
Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, defends the radios and terminals.
"It's a public safety issue," Bilirakis said. "They are in my district, and I have an obligation as a representative to help them out if I possibly can."
Lawmakers compete every year to snag state dollars for their hometowns, to improve the quality of life and look powerful doing so, too.
Byrd vowed to be different.
As the House budget chairman, Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, said in presenting the budget to members: "When forced to set priorities, we favored the needs of Florida's future over the pet projects of the past."
Kyle himself got $30-million for seven construction projects at his hometown Edison Community College.
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From the Times state desk
From the state wire