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Projects come with veto shields

Last year the governor took a sword to pet projects. This year Pinellas lawmakers employ new tactics to defend against it.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Lurking somewhere in the nearly $51-billion state budget is $500,000 to restore the cast-iron lighthouse on Pinellas County's Anclote Key.

"I'm not going to tell the governor where, either," said Senate Republican majority leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor.

That is because last year Gov. Jeb Bush used his veto pen like a machete on the lighthouse project and more than $300-million worth of other local projects he felt served no state purpose -- even ones dear to powerful members of his own party, such as Latvala.

This year, as usual, the Pinellas County legislative delegation has included millions of dollars of local projects in the state budget.

There is $1.1-million budgeted to bring Smithsonian Institution exhibits to the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg, $2.2-million to add professors at the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus so students can complete more kinds of bachelor's degrees without taking courses in Tampa, and $400,000 for a Salvation Army village for foster children.

But this year the delegation had to do more than just slip the projects into the budget. They also had to think up strategies to help them survive the governor's desk.

"I think the appropriations process actually jumped through a lot more hoops this year that hopefully give the governor's staff and him more knowledge of these projects," said Rep. Lars Hafner, D-St. Petersburg. "Hopefully, he won't be as inclined to broad-brush veto them."

Legislators tried to show that projects do have a statewide purpose, or at least that local initiatives are pilot projects of programs that could be expanded statewide.

An example is the $225,000 appropriation for Pinellas County to run a "Healthy Beaches" program. There is also money for Escambia and Miami-Dade counties to operate the project.

Hafner, a supporter, said the idea is to test water at the beach and detect any bacterial contamination early so "we won't have to close down beaches, which would be an economic disaster for us."

Legislators scaled down the Florida International Museum's request for $3-million -- an amount that got vetoed last year -- to a more modest $1.1-million before sending the budget to the governor.

But museum president Joe Cronin is still watching nervously.

"After last year, you know, we were doing really well and then we got swept up in that veto of the governor's," he said. "We don't count anything anymore."

For some Pinellas County projects he favors, Latvala got state agencies to request the money in their budgets, rather than adding it for them at the last minute, something he thinks attracts a veto. That's where Latvala put the lighthouse funding and where $350,000 for the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg is sitting.

And legislators played to the governor's sympathies.

The Salvation Army program, a residence for foster care children who have not been adopted, asked for $300,000, but the budget includes $400,000.

"We were able to get them a little more than they asked for," said State Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg. "It's a great program, and the Salvation Army has really stepped up to the plate on this. (Bush) is pretty big on children's issues so I'm keeping my fingers crossed on that one."

Other funding for Pinellas County in the legislative budget includes:

$1-million to renovate the St. Petersburg armory. Money to extend the school year at Maximo, Frontier and Gulfport elementary schools. $50,000 for the Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center. $200,000 for secure drug treatment services in the county. $365,000 in funding for Bridges of America to renovate a former St. Petersburg nursing home into a drug treatment center. $426,000 for a Neighborly Senior Services adult day care center in Largo. $1.25-million to support Meals on Wheels in Pinellas and Pasco counties. Farkas said the Pinellas County legislative delegation has made its best pitch to Bush to keep the programs in the final budget.

"He's been non-committal about everything," Farkas said. "We've talked with the governor and the lieutenant governor, and we're hoping for the best."

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