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Bush slashes local projects

He vetoes $313-million for projects from symphonies to scallops in a Florida budget

By JO BECKER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Declaring that he did not come to Tallahassee to "be a big-spending liberal," Gov. Jeb Bush on Tuesday used his veto pen to cut a whopping $313-million from the state's budget.

Gone from the budget is money for everything from symphonies to museums to scallop hatcheries. Money for a shuffleboard center named after a former lawmaker, a Cuban oral history project and for local social-service projects that help everyone from the drug-addicted to at-risk youth was also cut.

The majority of Bush's vetoes -- $218-million worth -- were aimed at the pork-barrel local projects that lawmakers use to look good to their constituents. But he also wiped out a $50-million plan to cut school impact fees levied by 15 counties, and he cut $25-million in job training.

The $313-million he sliced from the budget will go into the state's reserve accounts.

That's the amount that Bush vetoed from the state budget last year. Then, the first-year governor's vetoes stunned and infuriated even his closest Republican allies. But this year, lawmakers seemed resigned, if not always happy.

"We'll survive without any of it," said Sen. W.D. Childers, a Pensacola Republican and a 30-year veteran of the state budget process. "I'm not cryin', weepin,' wringin' my hands or slinging snot or anything."

For those who lost their projects, better communication between the governor and lawmakers helped smooth ruffled feathers, said Rep. Ken Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican who is the House's chief budget writer. "Even if you had one vetoed, they took a lot of time to listen to the merits and you were able to tell your side of the story," he said.

Two high-profile items sought by the Legislature's top leaders survived: $45-million to start a medical school at Florida State University and $15-million for a performing arts center in Orlando.

Bush said one of his guiding principles was that the state budget should not grow faster than the income of tax-paying Floridians. But as he signed the state's $50-billion-plus budget, the governor said he would rather focus on its accomplishments than the less than 1 percent he vetoed.

Playing off a theme both he and his brother, presidential candidate and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, use frequently, Bush said: "If I were asked to use one word to describe this budget, it would be "compassionate."'

The budget contains a dramatic increase of nearly $1-billion for public school education, enough that lawmakers say every teacher in the state should get a substantial raise. It also contains money for major transportation projects across the state, money to clean up the Everglades and polluted lakes, and substantial increases to programs that help the elderly, the disabled and children.

"There's so much to be proud of in this budget," Bush said.

But when the Legislature submitted its budget to Bush, it also contained hundreds of millions of dollars of "budget turkeys" -- which Bush defined in his first year as local projects that benefit special interests or specific locales instead of the state as a whole.

This year, Bush tried to establish criteria that projects must meet. He said it was important that projects "go through a process," and he and the Legislature jointly set up committees that studied and ranked water and juvenile justice projects.

Those projects survived Bush's veto pen if the special committees declared they had met the criteria, though even he admitted that the standards may have been less than rigorous. For instance, of the 266 applications that lawmakers submitted for various water-related projects such as local stormwater improvements or wastewater treatment plants, only 19 were rejected.

"The problem, maybe, is just about everything got through," Bush said.

Bush's criteria -- and the fact that many types of projects were never reviewed by special committees -- gave him enough wiggle room to make judgment calls. "This is not only about process, it's also about priorities," Bush explained Tuesday.

In some cases, Bush used the fact that a particular project had been approved by an agency to justify his decision not to veto it: He said, for instance, that the $15-million performing arts center in the hometown of Senate President Toni Jennings had been approved by the Board of Regents.

In other cases, he killed projects that had been signed off on by the regents: Sen. Jim Horne, R-Orange Park, said he was disappointed that he could not get money the regents had recommended for continuing medical education at certain hospitals.

Bush also let stand two law schools sought by black and Cuban lawmakers, neither of which was recommended by the Board of Regents. He approved a $1-million grant to study whether the nation's first public school of chiropractic education should be located at Florida State University. And he agreed to spend $45-million to start a medical school at the university, which is the alma mater of one of Bush's closest political allies, House Speaker John Thrasher.

The Board of Regents opposed the medical school last year, but this year Thrasher and others pointed to a study that showed, among other things, that Florida imports 90 percent of its doctors from other states.

Bush said that politics played no role in his decisions: "It's based on fairness -- it's not based on friendship."

In fact, the largest, single local project to be cut was a $25-million plan for the state to buy and conserve 5100 acres of the Cedar Swamp in Duval County, which is represented in part by Thrasher.

Thrasher, who is leaving office this year, called the budget process "more open and transparent than it ever has been," adding that "every item in the budget had a public hearing."

Jennings also said that most of the items vetoed fell outside the guidelines set by Bush at the start of the legislative session, though she expressed disappointment that the governor vetoed money for the welfare-to-work programs.

But some lawmakers said relationships will always matter.

"Take the medical school -- how does something go from being a terrible idea one year and then you do a study and the next thing you know it's a terrific idea," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "Is there politics involved? You bet. Is this going to become a perfect process? No chance."

Still, Lee said lawmakers feel that Bush has made progress in leveling the playing field between senior and junior members of the Legislature.

"This is kind of like guarding Michael Jordan," he said. "You don't expect to shut him down. You just want to be able to control the score a little bit."

But that doesn't salve the disappointment of lawmakers who lost sought-after projects. Unlike Jennings, St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jim Sebesta could not convince the appropriate state agency to sign off on his plan to give the Florida International Museum $1.1-million in state funds. That's because the project is too large for the secretary of state's museum grants program. As a result, Bush vetoed it, as he did last year.

"Well, there's no question that Toni Jennings has in effect given half of her life to the state of Florida, in service to the state of Florida," Sebesta mused on Tuesday. "The only question I might have is, is that a criteria then for projects? I don't know that. "If every similar project in the state is treated exactly the same, then I'm 100 percent in support of the process," Sebesta added. "If there are exceptions hanging out, then that's not so good."

-- Times staff writer Shelby Oppel contributed to this report.

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