By CRAIG PITTMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2000
Because of repeated complaints about the way the state is spending money from the sale of the popular Florida panther license plate, state auditors last week began combing through the books of the entire Florida Specialty License Plate program.
Florida sells more than 40 specialty plates to raise money for everything from manatee preservation to amateur sports. The top dollar producer is the plate that features an endangered Florida panther. Sales of the panther plate have raised more than $24-million since the Legislature approved it in 1990.
But a lot of that money went to programs with little or no connection to saving the panther. Instead it was spent on things like a children's museum in Broward County and paying for wildlife officers to patrol in counties where panthers haven't been seen in years. Last year just $1.5-million went to panther research.
Questions have been raised about other specialty plate funds.
Last year, state lawmakers discovered that the now-defunct Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports had failed to turn over $220,000 raised from sales of the "Olympic Spirit" license plate. But Dave Westberry of the Auditor General's Office said most of the complaints have been about the panther plate, many of them from the Sarasota in Defense of Animals group.
In deciding what agencies to study, the auditor general often considers "feedback from taxpayers, legitimate concerns about how tax money is being expended," he said.
When Sarasota in Defense of Animals began calling for an audit last year, state Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission Executive Director Allan Egbert predicted the auditors would find nothing wrong because the Legislature approved spending every penny and "the Legislature can appropriate money any way they want."
Westberry said the final audit report should be ready by this fall.