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    Budget writer bids for 2006 House speaker

    His work on the education budget whacked a hornet's nest, but he sees it as a platform.

    By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 29, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - When Rep. David Simmons got the job of writing a state education budget, he was as surprised as anyone. But he tackled it in a meticulous manner that has made him a favorite of House Speaker Johnnie Byrd.

    Elected in 2000 from a suburban Orlando district, Simmons was little known last fall when Byrd gave him one of the House's toughest assignments. As chairman of the 17-member education appropriations subcommittee, Simmons is largely responsible for $15-billion in spending and the first-year implementation of the class size amendment.

    Now, his highly touted idea of a $315-million program of teacher bonuses has become a major stumbling block in budget negotiations.

    Simmons' work has drawn both praise and criticism. Even 28 of his fellow Republicans refused to support Simmons on a recent amendment that affected school textbook purchases. But he is confident enough to join a crowded field of contenders for House speaker for the 2006-08 term.

    Across the state, college students, superintendents and school boards are unhappy with the budget Simmons crafted, with no across-the-board pay raise for teachers, cuts in textbooks, changes to the Bright Futures scholarship program and an "optional" tuition hike of up to 12.5 percent.

    "The House is moving forward with a dangerous budget that shortchanges education," said the Florida School Boards Association, which will amplify that criticism at a news conference today.

    Trim and businesslike, with thin gray hair and intense blue eyes, the 50-year-old Simmons had never served on a budget committee. "I just immersed myself in education," he said.

    It was Simmons who proposed cutting spending on school texts by $50-million after a group of teachers in Ocala wrote a letter complaining that they were being told to replace nearly new books with new, virtually identical books.

    It was Simmons who urged counties to revive summer school to make sure third-graders and high school students pass the FCAT. Critics, including Senate leaders, said Simmons wasn't putting any money in the program.

    It was Simmons who proposed limiting eligibility for the Bright Futures program to families earning up to $75,000 a year. The idea died quickly.

    Simmons was raised on a farm in Tennessee. His parents were teachers who raised corn, cattle and chickens.

    "I was digging post holes in rocky ground," Simmons recalled. "One day I said to myself, "I'm getting out of here."'

    He was first in his class as a math major at Tennessee Tech, got a law degree at Vanderbilt and practices civil law at one of Orlando's biggest firms.

    Like Byrd, Simmons believes in rewarding Florida teachers. The House has proposed spending $315-million for a pay plan for teachers, and a minimum starting salary of $31,000 in 2004. The teachers union prefers to raise salaries across the board to the national average.

    "We have a real difference of opinion, but I think he is pursuing the House agenda and the speaker's agenda, and the governor's agenda, and he will not deviate from that," said Maureen Dinnen, president of the union, which supported Democrat Bill McBride for governor last year.

    Simmons lives in Longwood with his wife, Alicya, and two daughters who attend Catholic school.

    His election in 2000 followed two unsuccessful House races in the late 1980s. But he stayed politically active and became close to then-U.S. Sen. Connie Mack, serving on a panel that recommended candidates for federal judgeships. When Lee Constantine left the House for the Senate in 2000, it was the opening Simmons needed.

    - Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

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