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State budget obstacle vanishes

After talking with the governor, the House speaker drops his demand for funding Alzheimer's research at USF.

Published May 22, 2003

TAMPA - Prodded by Gov. Jeb Bush, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd on Wednesday abruptly gave up his demand for $45-million for an Alzheimer's research center at the University of South Florida.

The Plant City Republican's concession could clear the way for an agreement on a state budget in the Legislature, where House and Senate leaders have been battling for weeks.

Lawmakers were unable to agree on a budget during the regular session, and they have fared no better in a special session scheduled to end Tuesday. Byrd's push for the money for the Alzheimer's institute has been one of the primary disputes.

Byrd's decision came late Wednesday after Bush privately suggested to Byrd that he drop his demand for millions for the research institute. In exchange, Byrd said in an interview, the governor agreed to put money for the institute in his budget proposal next year.

"The last thing I want to do is become embroiled in making Alzheimer's a political football," Byrd said Wednesday night in Tampa. "I think the better part of valor is to work with the governor. He's committed to doing this."

Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said he was pleased after learning of Byrd's decision from a Times reporter Wednesday night.

"This makes it much easier to come to a hopefully seamless and effortless conclusion," King said.

The Alzheimer's research institute at USF had been a roadblock in negotiations over the $52-billion budget. Many senators consider it a pork barrel project that the state can't afford this year.

"The Senate was perpetuating this myth that this Alzheimer's thing had been an impediment. It has never been an impediment," Byrd said. "I think it's pretty bizarre and ridiculous to think that the funding of Alzheimer's has something to do with whether the budget gets done."

After talking with Bush, Byrd quietly left the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon and flew to Tampa for a board meeting of the Alzheimer's institute. He told board members that he was pleased with the work they were doing and urged them not to let budget negotiations discourage them. He did not tell them he had decided to give up his fight for the money this year.

"I think we can fulfill a lot of big dreams," Byrd told the board members. "Whether we have more money or not, it doesn't matter."

The Legislature gave the Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute $20-million last year to build a facility at USF and $5-million for operating costs. The board has not spent much of the money.

How much time Bush and Byrd spent discussing the research institute is unclear. Byrd said they met Wednesday afternoon in Byrd's Capitol office. Bush said in an e-mail that he talked with Byrd over the phone and "ran into him briefly as well in the afternoon."

Bush did not provide notice of the meeting, despite a constitutional requirement that meetings between the governor and speaker should be open and the subject of a public notice.

Earlier Wednesday, King asked fellow Republicans who control the Senate if they were willing to take the heat for failing to reach a budget agreement because of Byrd's insistence that money be earmarked for the Alzheimer's institute. Byrd wants to name the institute after his father, who died of Alzheimer's in 1998.

Byrd repeatedly blamed King for creating a controversy over the Alzheimer's money. He said he didn't expect anything from the Senate in return for dropping his demand.

"If it's so important to him not to do research for Alzheimer's that he would consider blowing up the budget then hey, I'll wait till next year," Byrd said. "This guy is fixated on this issue."

But King said senators adamantly opposed earmarking millions for the research institute in a tight budget year.

Senators who opposed the measure say the state already has three major university research programs dealing with Alzheimer's and provides money for 13 memory disorder clinics in various areas of the state. This year the state spent $13.2-million on Alzheimer's programs at various hospitals, clinics and community care associations.

Millions more pour into the research facilities in federal funds, and the three universities are seeking approval of a major research project that will attract millions more from the National Institutes of Health.

"We have research," said Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon. "What we need most now is respite care; these people need help."

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, questioned whether the project is the right project at all.

"The University of Florida has been doing research and the other things this project aims to do," Dockery said. "It's not the right project at the wrong time, it's the wrong project at the wrong time."

Sen. Burt Saunders, R-Naples, noted that the University of Miami also has an outstanding research program and suggested all of the universities should be able to compete for the state's money.

Several senators also questioned provisions of Byrd's project that would keep most of its records and meetings exempt from public access. Byrd serves as chairman of the Alzheimer's board of directors.

"I'm worried about the secrecy in this," said Sen. Michael S. Bennett, R-Bradenton.

Byrd recently said he believes the new institute could join others in seeking federal approval for research projects.

-Times staff writer Steve Bousquet and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 22, 2003, 13:22:16]

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