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Speaker's project helps stall budget

Senators question the House leader's plan to spend millions of tax dollars on an Alzheimer's institute at USF in memory of his father.

Published May 1, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Florida House Speaker Johnnie Byrd wants to honor his father's memory and seal his own legacy by securing millions for an Alzheimer's research institute in Tampa, but it has become a prime reason for the Legislature's failure to pass a budget.

Gov. Jeb Bush today is expected to call a special session starting Wednesday to force lawmakers to pass a budget. The Alzheimer's institute, at the University of South Florida, will remain unresolved when lawmakers come back.

The Senate lacks Byrd's enthusiasm for steering $45-million in tax dollars to the board of the institute, which is chaired by Byrd himself. The timing also bothers senators, with state universities, including USF, forced to withstand deep budget cuts.

"I understand Johnnie's rush to legacy, but it was maybe the right program at the wrong time, and we never saw a real commitment from USF," Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said Wednesday.

King sees the new Alzheimer's center as a "member project," a polite phrase for pork barrel spending. He also wants universities to compete for state research dollars, as they do in a biomedical research program that King champions in memory of his parents.

Byrd says he can't understand the Senate's opposition. With 400,000 Alzheimer's sufferers in Florida and millions of family members and friends touched by the disease, the Plant City Republican is willing to debate the merits of his plan "all day long."

Beyond the fight over money, Byrd's venture has drawn attention for other reasons.

The board that runs the Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute at the University of South Florida includes some of Byrd's closest political allies, such as Valrico businessman Sam Rashid, Tampa lawyer and USF trustee Steve Burton and Plant City lawyer Howard Stitzel.

The board is "self-perpetuating," meaning the current board members would choose their successors, removing oversight by the governor or Legislature of millions of dollars in public money.

Legislation awaiting final votes this week would exempt some of the institute's work from public scrutiny. Supporters say that is necessary for competitive reasons, but the First Amendment Foundation opposes the secrecy.

A related bill would permit the nonprofit Alzheimer's center to add "for-profit subsidiaries" with approval of the Board of Education, to develop and market research discoveries in conjunction with doctors, researchers and pharmaceutical companies.

Byrd cited a "disconnect" between research at state universities and marketing of their work. But the arrangement creates the possibility that tax dollars could be used as seed money for private gain.

The House wants to name the institute after Byrd's father, Johnnie B. Byrd Sr., who died five years ago at age 86. They also tentatively set aside $25-million a year in future years, from higher traffic fines, to the Johnnie Bryars Byrd Sr. Trust Fund for Alzheimer's Research. Those plans are in limbo because of the budget collapse.

The senior Byrd, a grocer and political leader in Brewton, Ala., died of complications of Alzheimer's on Election Day 1998 while his namesake was winning a second term in the Florida House.

Byrd's passion for an Alzheimer's institute draws on a highly successful model that was the brainchild of another House speaker from Hillsborough County, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center at USF, named for the Tampa Democrat who developed it more than two decades ago.

"I was in the same position as Johnnie Byrd," said Moffitt, who was speaker from 1982 to 1984. "First, you've got to create the framework. And you have to grow up as an institution. I could not think of a better model than the one we have at the cancer center."

The Moffitt Cancer Center gets about $10-million a year in state tax dollars to subsidize its research efforts, and Moffitt cites U.S. News & World Report's listing of the center as one of America's 10 best cancer hospitals.

The Byrd Alzheimer's Center is taking shape much the same way. The provisions relating to public records and for-profit subsidiaries for the Alzheimer's center are attached to House bills that relate mainly to the Moffitt Cancer Center.

But Sen. Les Miller, the Tampa Democrat who filed the Moffitt-related provisions in the Senate, said the Alzheimer's institute provisions can't pass the Senate.

"This is a way for Johnnie Byrd to slow things down and cut deals," Miller said. "He probably knows that the Moffitt Cancer Center bill is a bill that was going to pass both houses."

The Legislature established the Alzheimer's institute in last year's budget and earmarked $20-million for construction and $5-million for operations. But no money has been spent. The state says an invoice submitted by the institute did not cite the correct budget category, so the state asked that it be redone.

"To date, we have not received that paperwork," said Tami Torres, a spokeswoman for Chief Financial Officer Tom Gallagher.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan and researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 1, 2003, 04:06:34]

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