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Millions for Harris' trips under review

Legislators from her own party are questioning the emphasis put on overseas travel.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 31, 2001

Legislators from her own party are questioning the emphasis put on overseas travel.

TALLAHASSEE -- For her role in last year's election recount that led to a George W. Bush victory, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris has been the darling of Republicans across the nation.

But closer to home, Harris' forays overseas are under fire from legislators from her own party.

Buried on page 363 of the 420-page state budget is the creation of a special review committee to look at the $3.4-million Harris budgeted for international relations this year and the money spent since she took office.

Legislative leaders are questioning the emphasis that Harris has put on international travel and in establishing relationships with other countries while failing to adequately deal with the state's election problems.

The review committee is being appointed by Senate President John McKay, House Speaker Tom Feeney and Gov. Jeb Bush.

The committee, with support from the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, is to review and evaluate all of her expenditures on international affairs since July 1, 1999, and produce a report.

Earlier this year, Senate leaders quietly eliminated the money from her budget, assigning it instead to Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency. After the House refused to go along, the Senate agreed to restore the money but insisted on an investigation.

The situation was not discussed in public but was handled behind the scenes with the resulting agreement deep in the state budget for 2001-2002.

Feeney said he disagreed with the Senate and felt Harris was an able advocate to foreign countries, but some high-ranking members of the Senate disagreed.

"I thought she was a huge advocate to the state," Feeney said Monday.

Harris did not return repeated telephone calls seeking comment. David Host, her spokesman, said Harris welcomes the examination but would not directly discuss it with the St. Petersburg Times.

A spokeswoman for McKay said the Senate questioned whether two different state agencies should be delving into international relations.

McKay has appointed former Sen. Bob Johnson of Sarasota and Robert Beitler, general counsel for Comptroller Bob Milligan, to serve as his representatives on the committee.

On Monday, Bush appointed Matilde M. Amarchand, 40, of Spring Hill, to serve on the committee. She is manager of economic development for the Tampa Chamber of Commerce. Feeney has yet to make his appointments.

Harris was criticized for spending too much time on international relations during last year's election crisis. She has focused much of her work since her election in 1998 on developing the office's foray into international relations.

Before Harris was elected, those who held the office focused more on supervising elections and developing historical and cultural exhibitions, leaving the international relations to the old Florida Department of Commerce and Enterprise Florida once it was created in 1996.

Harris sees her department as "truly becoming a state department" for Florida, more like the U.S. State Department.

Her travels have included trips to Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Canada, Panama, Mexico and Barbados.

Deputy Secretary of State Ben McKay compared the way Harris delves into international relations with the way the U.S. departments of State and Commerce work with each other.

"They both have international issues and serve very different functions," McKay said. "The secretary of state carries out indirect economic development."

Among the benefits Florida receives is her ability to monitor national trade agreements like NAFTA that work better in some states than others, McKay said.

Budgets for the international relations have risen from $783,000 in 1999 to $3.4-million in 2000-2001 and remained the same in the current year budget. She had requested more than $5-million, but legislators would not approve the increase. She spends more than $480,000 on salaries for the division offices, which include a director, a chief of protocol and an international affairs coordinator.

During her first 22 months in office, Harris amassed more than $106,000 in travel bills, more than any Cabinet officer and the governor. She visited eight countries on 10 foreign trips, staying at luxury hotels at taxpayer expense.

Harris defends her international travel and the focus of her office on it in frequent speeches citing the importance of international relations to the state's economy.

In a speech to the Florida League of Cities in April 2000 -- before the election -- Harris said her responsibilities include "promoting our heritage and the arts, overseeing elections, corporations, licensing, libraries and international affairs."

"Of all those responsibilities, however, none is closer to my heart than the strengthening of our international relationships," she added.

Last year her office established the state's first "Office of Protocol," a program designed to assist visiting dignitaries from other countries "and address international diplomacy."

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