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Museum won't get $1-million

For the second year in a row, funds for the Florida International Museum run afoul of Gov. Bush.

By BRYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 31, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Last year, after watching Gov. Jeb Bush veto $3-million intended for the Florida International Museum, museum backers pledged to make a better case in 2000 for state funding of the downtown St. Petersburg facility.

They lobbied. They called in favors. They flew to Tallahassee and met with the governor in person. In what was perhaps an appeal to brotherly love, they even got the Republican Party's chief fundraiser, who will help raise millions for George W. Bush's presidential campaign, to write a letter on the museum's behalf.

It failed. Bush vetoed $1.1-million for the museum Tuesday.

In a morning phone call to museum board chairman Rick Baker, the governor offered to create a competitive grant program that could review the merits of big ticket requests like the museum's. Organizations requesting smaller cultural affairs grants now compete through the secretary of state's office, and Bush said he would like to see the same thing for big projects.

"He talked more in terms of trying to keep the lid on the state's budget without talking about the specifics of why our project was vetoed," said Baker, who was co-chairman of Bush's local campaign for governor.

As he did last year, Bush complained during a Tallahassee news conference that too many projects in the budget weren't given independent scrutiny.

"There are a lot of line items in every area of policy that on the surface appear a worthy cause, but they didn't go through a process," Bush said.

The museum did a lot of political maneuvering, including the letter from St. Petersburg real estate developer Mel Sembler, who is also finance chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Sembler's letter noted that he never would have considered building BayWalk, the downtown shopping plaza in St. Petersburg, if not for the museum, which now features a permanent exhibition on the life of John F. Kennedy. The state money would have been used to renovate an upper floor for use in displaying rotating exhibitions from the Smithsonian Institution.

Tuesday's rejection will not derail plans to bring in those exhibits, Baker said.

The news was not all bad for south Pinellas County projects. Rep. Rudy Bradley of St. Petersburg, who recently switched to the Republican Party, fared particularly well.

Bradley projects that survived Bush's scrutiny included $800,000 for a "community and faith-based organizations initiative"; $1-million for microelectromechanical systems research at the University of South Florida; and $200,000 for AIDS awareness for minorities.

"I am rather pleased with how we fared in the budget," he said Tuesday.

Some of his projects were vetoed, such as $300,000 for the Florida Institute for Economic Development, but "you can always say one got away that you wanted," Bradley said.

The rest of Pinellas County had its successes tempered by disappointments: The city of Seminole got $3-million to build a library to share with St. Petersburg Junior College; and the Anclote Key lighthouse will get $500,000 in state funds toward renovations. But Neighborly Senior Services was denied $426,000 to finish its Adult Day Services center in Largo.

Legislators and local proponents of projects said they tried exhaustively to show the governor that that projects met a statewide purpose and that they should be a priority.

"On some of these, we said we did the homework, but if it wasn't to his liking, he vetoed it anyway," said Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg. "What he said he was going to do, he's done. And he's done it two years in a row."

-- Times staff writers Edie Gross and Ed Quioco contributed to this report.

What was axed, spared

Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed these projects:

$1.1-million for Florida International Museum.

$50,000 for Asian Family and Community Empowerment Center.

$350,000 for Pinellas County community health centers.

Bush left these in the budget:

$400,000 for Salvation Army Children's Village.

$1-million for research into microelectromechanical systems at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.

$300,000 for stabilization of historic structures on Egmont Key.

$450,000 for an art wing and cultural facility at the Wildwood Community Center.

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