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Lawmaker happy to open state's wallet

A $2.2-billion surplus fuels the House budget, which includes increased funding for public schools and hiring judges.

Published April 18, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - State Rep. Joe Negron has long favored limits on government spending. But now that he holds Florida's checkbook, he's finding it's easier to spend than to save.

The Stuart Republican calls himself a fiscal conservative, but the $63-billion House budget he assembled is 6 percent more than last year's and $1-billion more than the Senate's.

The House wants to boost public school spending 6 percent, hire more than 100 judges and cut taxes while sending hundreds of projects to lawmakers' hometowns. And that was before Florida's surging economy produced a $2.2-billion windfall.

"It's a good budget year. No question about it," Negron says.

The windfall could not have come at a better time for Negron, 43: He's a candidate for attorney general in 2006 and has already raised $470,000 from more than 1,000 contributors.

But while it's easy to make friends by approving more spending, it is hard to keep that image as a fiscal tightwad. "There's a tension between conservative fiscal principles and the general propensity of politicians to spend money," said Negron, chairman of the House Fiscal Council. "What I have tried to do is reach a delicate balance in that area."

Negron, a lawyer, was elected in 2000 after beating Art Argenio, a Republican who earlier defeated him. Negron called the win "redemption" after Argenio's attacks that Negron's work as a defense lawyer allowed criminals to go free on legal technicalities.

The soft-spoken Negron keeps an unusual bit of memorabilia in his Capitol office: A framed No. 3 uniform jersey worn by one of his boyhood heroes, former Atlanta Braves outfielder Dale Murphy. As a freshman legislator, Negron joined the Freedom Caucus, a group of conservatives who opposed a Senate plan to eliminate sales tax exemptions.

A year ago, Negron sponsored a constitutional amendment to sharply curtail state spending by limiting it to growth in Floridians' income. Democrats and moderate Republicans said it was rushed through with too little study, and the Senate rejected it.

Negron flirted with running for Congress last year but stayed put. His reward: a coveted two-year assignment holding the House's purse strings.

If Negron has been a spendthrift, few are grumbling after years of tight budgets that forced deep cuts in basic programs.

His priorities are schools and courts. A graduate of the private Stetson University, Negron steered $19-million more to raise the tuition stipend to $3,000 for students attending private Florida colleges.

"I think you ought to have a choice where you go to college," he said.

Negron has his critics.

Advocates of affordable housing are furious at him for diverting $104-million from a housing fund to other uses. Advocates for the poor fault the House for dropping Medicaid benefits for low-income people who are eligible for Medicare and not living in nursing homes. Florida Legal Services said 77,000 people would lose some necessary services, including dental care, home health and transportation.

Negron acknowledges that the school spending increase has come partly at the expense of human services. But he notes that the House Medicaid budget is up by $1.3-billion.

The House also spends $117-million more than the Senate on school construction, $90-million more on water projects in lawmakers' districts, $24-million more for judges, prosecutors and public defenders, $8-million more to fix hurricane-damaged marinas, $8-million more for film promotion and $4-million more to promote agriculture.

It surprised Senate President Tom Lee. "The normally very conservative House of Representatives has spent a billion dollars more than the normally more moderate Senate has spent in its budget," Lee said.

The difference is largely because the House pays cash for programs, such as Everglades restoration, for which the Senate uses borrowed money.

Negron defends the number of local projects in the House budget that critics call turkeys because they were not recommended by state agencies.

Legislators' priorities are just as important as those of state bureaucrats, Negron says.

"If an idea comes from an agency staffer, it's clothed with the presumption of correctness and merit," he says. "Our ideas somehow have a presumption that we're just bringing home some kind of project of dubious value. I think, frankly, it's just the opposite."

What people like most about Negron is his open, direct manner. Even Democrats who disagree with some of his policies praise his openness and accessibility.

"Joe has always had an open-door policy," says Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee.

It's common in Tallahassee for the budget writer to be sequestered behind closed doors to avoid the endless pleas for money. But Negron welcomes visitors to his Capitol office, keeps his door open and presents his own bills before committees.

--Steve Bousquet can be reached at

[Last modified April 19, 2005, 07:40:50]

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