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    Bush offers plan to recharge economy

    The governor wants the state to borrow money to step up road-building and school construction to create jobs.

    By JULIE HAUSERMAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 13, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Jeb Bush offered a sweeping plan to jump-start Florida's faltering economy Friday.

    In a nutshell, he wants to borrow money to accelerate road building and school construction, which he says will create 33,000 jobs around the state.

    Bush's proposal, which must win approval from the Legislature, would accelerate $928.2-million worth of future public construction and renovation projects, beginning in June 2002.

    The fast-track projects include many renovations around Tampa Bay area schools such as St. Petersburg College, the University of South Florida, Pasco-Hernando Community College, Hillsborough County Community College and school districts in Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

    Statewide, Florida would spend $192-million on the school renovations, starting next year.

    The state would issue bonds for some of the construction projects. Other projects, including some renovations at secondary schools, would be paid for with money the state already has.

    The governor has complained about Florida's reliance on debt since he took office. But he said the national crisis demands short-term borrowing.

    "These are extraordinary times," Bush said. "We're living in wartime conditions. We just have to adjust and adapt."

    With Florida budget cuts looming, the balance will be delicate.

    Bush was so confident his plan would receive widespread support that he said Friday that getting the ideas approved by state lawmakers "are just technicalities."

    "This isn't a time to worry about the three branches of government and who gets what," Bush said.

    But Bush's road proposal drew immediate fire from state Sen. Jim Sebesta, the St. Petersburg Republican who heads the Senate Transportation Committee. Sebesta said the road projects aren't spread out equally in the state, and that Bush's plan has little road construction money for the Tampa Bay area.

    Bush proposes to issue bonds for the construction, which would be paid off when Congress sends federal road money to Florida.

    "I'm very disappointed," Sebesta said. "Money that would have gone to Highway 19 and the links in Hillsborough, money that would have come over the years from Congress, is going to be used substantially on just two projects -- Interstate 4 in Polk County and I-95 in Palm Beach."

    Bush spokeswoman Lisa Gates said the projects were chosen because "they were the only projects that are able to be physically under construction by the end of the year. That's the criteria we used."

    Dominic Calabro, who heads the independent government watchdog group Florida TaxWatch, said the state needs to be careful about debt.

    "Florida has, in the last 10 years, had a dramatic increase in our state's bonded indebtedness. We tripled it," Calabro said, adding that borrowing money now to create jobs immediately is "an appropriate trade-off," given the current crisis.

    TaxWatch on Friday issued a long list of proposed cuts that state government should make, including eliminating pay raises for the governor, lieutenant governor, Cabinet officers, state lawmakers, judges and top brass at state universities.

    The Legislature meets to hash out the state budget in a special session beginning Oct. 22.

    "I've been blessed to be governor the last three years when the fight between the Legislature and the governor was over how fast the government should grow," Bush said at a Friday press conference. "The choices weren't that hard. Now, we're going to have to make some tough choices. People are hurting."

    Bush also proposed pumping $20-million into new advertising to lure tourists back to Florida. Bush said corporate contributions to tourism promotions could balloon the state's tourism effort to as much as $100-million.

    "We have to get people back on airplanes," Bush said. "I've traveled to Boston and Chicago and hugged Mickey Mouse. Whatever I could do to get people to get back on airplanes."

    Bush also proposes loosening restrictions on the money that goes to fund construction at airports so those dollars can be used for tighter security.

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