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Inauguration 2005

Will Florida's clout fade or hold?

Key power brokers no longer retain influential posts, and other states are jostling for influence. There is, of course, Jeb Bush.

Published January 20, 2005

WASHINGTON - For four years, Florida has had tremendous clout with the Bush administration and gotten lots of goodies from Congress.

Rep. C.W. Bill Young showered the state with millions of dollars in federal projects. Gov. Jeb Bush played a key role in opposing oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. When the hurricanes hit last summer, the governor and the congressional delegation made sure there was a swift federal response.

Now, as President Bush is sworn in for a second term, some say Florida has nowhere to go but down.

Young, a Largo Republican, has stepped down from the chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee, a job that allowed him to be a one-man ATM for the state. Also, President Bush's solid victory in Florida - and the fact he cannot seek a third term - could mean his administration pays less attention to the Sunshine State.

"It's not a disaster for Florida. It's just that there are going to be other interests that are heard as loudly as Florida was," said Howard Marlowe, a Washington lobbyist who represents beach towns around the nation.

Gov. Bush called Young's reassignment "a huge loss" for the state.

But Florida lawmakers say they still have the chops to get the state what it needs.

Young, who had to step down because of his party's six-year term limit for chairmen, will head the appropriations defense subcommittee. He said he'll still be able to direct millions of dollars to the state because he has racked up lots of IOUs with committee members. "I still think Florida will be treated very fairly," he said.

Rep. Mark Foley, R-West Palm Beach, said Young "will have a lot of chits to collect."

On most issues, Florida has fared well in the past four years.

In addition to Young, the state had Democratic Sen. Bob Graham in a high-seniority position on the Senate Finance Committee, Rep. Michael Bilirakis of Tarpon Springs chairing the Commerce subcommittee on health and Rep. Clay Shaw as a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, which oversees taxes and Social Security.

And of course there's the family connection. When Gov. Bush visits Washington, he doesn't stay at a hotel, he typically stays at his brother's house.

"That's access," said Foley. "Not many people get to stay at the White House. Even heads of state are relegated to Blair House."

Politically, Florida has been vital to the president. It not only decided the 2000 election, it solidified his re-election in 2004 and added to the Republican majority in the Senate.

The attention Florida received in the president's first term helped keep a large swath of the eastern gulf off-limits to gas and oil drilling and provided money to clean up the Everglades.

It also kept money flowing to Florida during last year's hurricane season, which brought four storms in six weeks. Rep. Jim Davis, D-Tampa, said Florida was reimbursed for 80 percent of its costs - a considerable amount.

More recently, Gov. Bush's pleas for federal flexibility on Medicaid have been answered.

He met two weeks ago with Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson in Washington. Days later, he signaled he had the green light from the federal government to propose dramatic changes to Medicaid that would essentially convert the public health care program for the poor into a government-funded insurance plan.

"We have done extremely well," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Miami. "It does not hurt to have a governor with pretty good access to the White House. Jeb is such an asset up here."

The biggest disappointment for Florida in the last few years was the delegation's failure to improve its share of federal highway money. Florida lawmakers have been out-muscled and outmaneuvered by lawmakers from northern states.

Doug Callaway, president of Floridians for Better Transportation, said he hopes that the new Florida delegation - with Republican Mel Martinez in the Senate - will help the state improve the highway formula this year.

On pocketbook issues, members of the delegation say they will still command lots of influence because of Young.

"He'll still be the guy I will go to for projects in my area," said Shaw.

Looking ahead, Florida has several issues that will test the state's clout in the next few years.

A new federal commission could once again try to shut down military bases, including MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Lawmakers from oil and gas states are making another attempt to expand drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while officials from northern states try to squeeze out more highway money at Florida's expense.

Members of the Florida delegation are confident the state will fare well. They say Martinez will be crucial because after years of both the state's senators as Democrats - Graham and Bill Nelson - Martinez gives Florida a voice in the majority party in the Senate.

Young used his committee clout to construct new buildings at MacDill in the last few years, a move that he hopes will reduce the likelihood it will be closed. He said the new buildings and the importance of its military commands should protect it from closure.

Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog group, said Florida may be losing ground to California, which now has chairmen of several key House committees.

But Florida lawmakers say they should get what they need.

"We have people positioned in some good perches," said Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Bartow.

Said Foley, "When you stack our delegation up against any state, we come out pretty strong."

Gov. Bush said Wednesday he was confident Florida will still have influence with the Bush administration.

After all, the governor said, "I'm still his brother."

Times staff writer Joni James contributed to this report.

[Last modified January 20, 2005, 04:24:12]

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