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Speaker's pet project imperils budget talks

Johnnie Byrd's plan for a USF Alzheimer's center is an unfair pork barrel project in a year fraught with sacrifice, senators say.

Published May 21, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - On the surface, lawmakers spent Tuesday negotiating differences in the $52-billion state budget. But one issue threatened to blow negotiations sky high.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd wants $45-million for an Alzheimer's research center he wants to build at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He wants the center named after his late father, who had Alzheimer's.

Senate President Jim King considers the center a pork barrel project the state can't afford this year. And the Senate's not budging.

"It's not right for him to do it in this situation," King said. "Byrd is focusing everything on the Alzheimer's deal."

The state should not commit money to new projects when it is cutting money for many existing programs, King said. He also questioned a bill that would give the Alzheimer's institute the right to keep its meetings and records secret.

"We are a little tired of being on the nice guy end of everything we're doing," King said. "We've made it clear we won't take that project."

Its a matter of principle, King said. Every senator has given up traditional pork barrel projects intended to curry favor back home, King said. He considers the Alzheimer's center the most expensive pet project in the budget.

Would Byrd sacrifice the entire budget over the Alzheimer's center?

A spokesman for Byrd has repeatedly insisted "he won't turn his back on 400,000 Floridians who have the disease." Byrd did not return a phone call for comment.

Gov. Jeb Bush said the negotiations have encountered "bumps and starts" but is hopeful lawmakers can get a budget passed. He said he has urged lawmakers to negotiate without holding on to specific projects because he knows both sides are passionate about Byrd's Alzheimer's center.

Although negotiations were making progress Tuesday after Monday's daylong stall, King said Byrd is undercutting his own House members by making all the decisions.

"His people will agree to something and come back two hours later and say they can't do that," King said. "I've given my people the authority to settle."

Late Tuesday night the six conference committees composed of members from both houses were scheduled to end negotiations, leaving unresolved issues to the two appropriations chairmen. Sometime today King and Byrd will attempt to negotiate any other unresolved issues.

Lawmakers are in the final days of a two-week special session Gov. Jeb Bush called after they failed to pass a budget during their regular 60-day session.

King said he still thinks lawmakers can reach an agreement on the budget before the session is scheduled to end Tuesday.

He also is optimistic that they can agree on bills that establish the regulations for Constitutional amendments on class sizes and smoking in bars and restaurants, as well as a bill aimed at auto insurance fraud.

Asked about a water bill the House has passed that would block the pumping of water on the Cone Ranch in East Hillsborough County, King said Byrd "wants it a lot."

But King was noncommittal. "We'll see how it plays out," he said.

Resolving the state's medical malpractice issue will have to wait for another special session, King and Bush agreed.

- Staff writer Alisa Ulferts contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 21, 2003, 02:01:26]

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