The House speaker spends public funds on a mailing justifying his tax policies.
By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 20, 2003
TALLAHASSEE - Under fire at home, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd used public money for a mailing to Hillsborough County families defending his support for public education and opposition to higher taxes.
Byrd's mailing went out last week to about 25,000 households, the speaker's office said. The campaign-style counteroffensive comes as the Hillsborough School Board is considering $50-million in cuts, including laying off teacher aides and leaving some assistant principal positions vacant.
PTA leaders are trying to rally parents against the cuts with fliers sent home with students.
"We just wanted to communicate," Byrd said Monday. He said parents read news reports "and they ought to get it straight."
The Plant City Republican has been criticized for expanding the House public relations staff from one to 13 at a cost of $640,000.
Byrd's letter on official House stationery included, at extra expense, a first-class, 4- by 6-inch business reply mail postcard asking for recipients' e-mail addresses and phone numbers. House staff members said they did not know how much the mailing cost or how the households receiving it were chosen.
"The fight for less taxes, more personal freedom and family values is not an easy one," Byrd wrote to a Lutz couple on May 13. "The supporters of more government claim to have a progressive vision, but their plans are fueled by higher taxes, expanded gambling and other big government policies."
He wrote: "Because our message is filtered or ignored by the press, the House needs to communicate the whole, unbiased story directly to you." The letter directed people to the official House Web site, www.myfloridahouse.com and urged recipients to return a postcard with the House seal on the back.
Enclosed with the letter was a flier showing an arrow pointing upward. The flier said Hillsborough schools would get a "$65-million increase" and that school spending is growing faster than student enrollment growth.
Hillsborough deputy superintendent Jim Hamilton said that while Byrd's letter was correct, he did not tell the whole story.
"We don't dispute that this is a tough year," Hamilton said. "But if we're going to speak to the public from an unfiltered perspective, then we have to tell the whole story."
While Hillsborough would receive $59.2-million more under the latest House proposal, most of the additional money would be spent to comply with legislative mandates under the class size amendment ($32.5-million) and to absorb growth in student enrollment ($26.6-million), according to an analysis by the school district.
The analysis says that after "mandates and growth," Hillsborough would have an extra $84,290 for everything else. That includes higher costs for health insurance, gasoline and electricity, and no raises for school district employees.
"We are getting a lot of new money," Hamilton said. "We've also got a lot of new bills."
Hillsborough would get 3.58 percent more money next year, slightly less than the statewide increase of 4.62 percent, Hamilton said. "The state certainly did better than the speaker's home district," he said.
Byrd said school districts have an insatiable appetite for money.
The PTA at Walden Lake Elementary School, which Byrd's children attended, urged its members to e-mail Byrd and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, about the possibility of cuts in teacher aides, assistant principals and guidance counselors.
PTA president Pam Byars said the school's assistant principal job is vacant and may not be filled. Byars said the flier was intended to spur parents to action, not as criticism of Byrd.
"Johnnie's been very supportive of this area. He's not a foreign entity. He's not somebody we don't trust," Byars said. "But we also know that his philosophy is to live within our means, and we're not just going to sit back and wait until the end."