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Senate budget holds millions for bay area

But the plan has yet to face the tests of House-Senate negotiations and Gov. Bush's veto pen.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 31, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Tampa General Hospital, Florida International Museum and a proposed state park in Pasco County all have a place in the $50-billion budget tentatively approved Thursday by the state Senate.

The Senate spending plan would give more than $13-million to ailing Tampa General, $1-million for expanding the Florida International Museum and almost $600,000 to a proposed state park along the Gulf of Mexico north of New Port Richey.

The money is far from guaranteed. The Senate plan must be negotiated with the House and approved by Gov. Jeb Bush, and a final state budget is not likely for another month.

Last year, Bush vetoed $313-million in local projects that he said did not benefit the state as a whole, including funding for the museum and park.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Palm Harbor, is confident Bush will not veto money for the park this year, but he was less certain about the museum.

Museum officials are hoping for $3-million to expand exhibit space as part of a planned affiliation with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

"It was all I could do to get a million," Latvala said.

Rick Baker, an attorney who chairs the museum's board, remained optimistic that the money could increase and that it might escape a Bush veto this time around. He said the museum attracts tourists and student groups from all over the state.

The House budget exceeds the Senate allocation for Tampa General, with a total of about $21-million, according to Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon. The final figure is likely to be a compromise between the two chambers.

Tampa General has lost about $30-million since it became private in 1997. It could lose as much as $21-million this fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. The hospital would then have to consider drastic cuts in medical services.

"We're getting them pretty close to what they need to be whole," Lee said.

Under the Senate plan, the balance of the money TGH needs would have to come from local government. "We may come up with some creative ways to force the issue," Lee said.

Latvala pushed several water projects he thinks Bush will approve because they went through a new review process the governor helped establish. One of those projects invests $1.5-million into the restoration of the 45-acre Stevenson Creek estuary in Clearwater. Latvala also hopes to pass a $1-million appropriation to dredge the Hudson Channel.

The Senate budget includes millions for road-building projects in the Tampa Bay area, although not all of the projects are specified. More than $400,000 would go to improving cargo roads into Tampa International Airport. There also is money to improve sections of I-275, I-4 and U.S. 19.

Sen. Locke Burt, an Ormond Beach Republican who heads the Senate Budget Committee, said Thursday he was proud of the preliminary product. Burt said the budget has "major commitments" to education and transportation and does "a real good job" on health care and social services.

The Senate version spends more in all of those areas than does the House plan. Both chambers are controlled by Republicans. "I am committed to maintaining the Senate positions as we go into conference (with the House)," Burt said.

The Senate plan includes about $267-million in tax breaks, most notably a five-day state sales tax holiday and a cut in the state tax on investments in stocks and bonds.

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