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Lawmaker grips ax on 'tough' cuts

In charge of slashing programs for the poor and elderly, Republican Rep. Sandy Murman has no shortage of critics, especially in the party she left.

By JULIE HAUSERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2001


In charge of slashing programs for the poor and elderly, Republican Rep. Sandy Murman has no shortage of critics, especially in the party she left.

TALLAHASSEE -- Five years ago, Tampa's Sandra L. "Sandy" Murman was a prominent charity volunteer and Democratic candidate for the state House. She told voters she wanted to "end corporate welfare" and spend more public money on education and children. Democrat Gov. Lawton Chiles campaigned for her.

Today, the 51-year-old Murman is in a remarkably different role: She's the top House Republican in charge of slashing state programs that help the poor and elderly.

As the first Republican female House speaker pro tempore -- a top lieutenant to House Speaker Tom Feeney -- Murman is a lightning rod for critics who say the Republican-led Legislature is giving tax breaks to the rich while cutting programs for the poor.

Democrats accuse her of putting her personal ideals aside in favor of political expediency. Murman says she has worked hard and is doing what she was elected to do.

"The Lord has put me here for a reason," she said.

In the mind-numbing budget meetings in Tallahassee, lawmakers are going program by program, deciding which citizens will lose services.

"This is really tough. We're broke and we're at war. No exercise we do here is going to be good for anybody," Murman said after a particularly dismal House committee meeting, where proposed cuts included services to homebound AIDS patients and people who care for loved ones with Alzheimer's. "We've all agonized over it."

Last week, Murman found herself on the House floor, having to answer questions like this one posed by Jacksonville Democrat Rep. Terry Fields: "If these cuts take effect July 1, what happens to medically needy pregnant women after that date? What are they supposed to do?"

Later, in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Murman said her natural compassion and her familiarity with Florida's social service programs is an advantage.

"I'm able to surgically go into this budget, totally minimizing the impact," she said.

Her critics disagree. They say Murman has a poor grasp of details, and that cuts she calls mere "fund shifts" will eliminate services for the elderly and poor people.

"I think what you've done is not just 'fund shift.' You've eliminated people who are eligible (for state services). We're talking about people who are darned poor, who need medications, who are caring for their loved ones," complained Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Crystal River.

Argenziano had Murman's post as chairwoman of the House Council of Healthy Communities last year, but Argenziano was stripped of the job after her run-ins with House leaders.

Democrat Anne Gannon of Delray Beach, who sits on a key House budget committee, says Murman has "a big heart," but is "just doing what the Republican leadership tells her to do."

"She says the cuts are not going to affect people," Gannon said. "They will affect people."

One case in point: after a budget-cutting session, an advocate for services to Alzheimer's patients approached Murman, complaining of cuts. Murman told her: We're not cutting, just shifting people from the state to the federal Medicaid program. After talking with the woman, though, Murman said she realized that, indeed, people would drop through the cracks. She pledged to restore money for the programs.

She defends herself this way: Budget writing is evolutionary. State agencies propose cuts, the Legislature puts them on the table, and then the public has a chance to weigh in. Sometimes, that means new information comes to light, and lawmakers have to adjust.

Murman says critics who complain that she doesn't pay attention to details are wrong.

"If I didn't read anything, and I didn't know what was in it, I wouldn't have had success," Murman said. "I've passed 36 bills in five years, and brought home $100-million."

Murman's political story is unusual. She was a lifelong Republican living on Davis Islands in Tampa until she ran for the state House in 1996, in a district that had been represented by popular Democrat Jim Davis. Davis ran for Congress. Murman switched to the Democratic Party, saying the party's values were more in line with her own.

Murman wanted more public investment, and said she wanted to look at eliminating some of Florida's tax exemptions to raise more money for schools and poor people.

A year later, after winning election to the Legislature, she abruptly switched back to the GOP, infuriating the Democrats who helped elect her. The day of her announcement, Republicans wore "Welcome Back Sandy" buttons.

"Many will criticize my decision as political suicide -- and they may be right," Murman wrote in a letter to voters.

Murman hit the Legislature as the GOP was gaining its first Republican majority since Reconstruction. As an early Democratic defector, she became a darling of House leaders. She was tapped to head the House Children and Families Committee just two years after taking office.

"Sandy Murman could have filed a bill to change the name of Sun City to Hell City and it would have passed. They wanted to do everything they could to protect her," former Pinellas Park Democrat Rep. Mary Brennan said in 1998.

Murman said Democrats, particularly female lawmakers, were unwelcoming and criticized her because she was opposed to abortion.

"It was very intimidating," Murman said.

Her party switch didn't hurt her politically, despite Democratic attack ads. She was re-elected in 1998 and 2000. Term limits will allow her to serve in the House until 2004. Murman was mentioned as a possible candidate for Jim Davis' congressional seat, but she said she has no intention of getting into that race. She does, however, want to run for the state Senate.

"She's just a perfect candidate as far as we're concerned," said Margie Kincaid, chairman of the Hillsborough County Republican Party.

These days, Murman has a coveted Capitol office, a million-dollar home, and a daughter at nearby Florida State University. Her husband, Jim, is a successful attorney.

She said she has had "sleepless nights" over the budget cuts.

Every day, hordes of lobbyists wait to see her.

As a House leader, Murman says she tries to be a mentor to new members, especially women.

"Sometimes," she said, "I think we -- women -- are not taken seriously."

It's doubtful that Murman will be able to rise any further in House leadership. The speaker pro tempore is an appointed position. The House speaker, on the other hand, is elected by his or her peers. In the House chamber, all the portraits of past House speakers have one thing in common: They are men. After five years in the Legislature, does Murman think there will ever be a female House speaker?

She smiles. "I have to choose my words carefully," she says. "I think there should be a woman speaker of the House. I don't know if it will happen any time soon."

Sandra L. Murman

BORN: Indianapolis, Aug. 9, 1950

ELECTED: 1996

DISTRICT 56: Downtown Tampa, Davis Islands, part of Carrollwood, southern Hillsborough County

EDUCATION: Indiana University, bachelor's in business and marketing, 1972

WORK EXPERIENCE: Account manager, 1981-84; sales manager and sales executive at Xerox Corp., 1973-80

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