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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

In Florida pet projects win, children, the sick and ederly lose


by Lindsay Peterson

Toward the end of this year's legislative session, state lawmakers seemed near tears as they explained why they had to cut so much from public schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

They managed, however, to find the money in their $68 billion budget for a dozen or so of their favorite projects, in the process pumping up the budgets of a few state colleges and universities.

The University of South Florida, for instance, was allocated $250,000 it didn't ask for, to research drug addiction. That's because state Rep. Darryl Rouson, a St. Petersburg Democrat with strong feelings about drug abuse, wanted the funding and worked closely with Republican leaders to add it to the budget in the final days.

USF's youngest branch campus, Polytechnic, in Lakeland, is getting $46 million for new construction, more than twice as much as the state university Board of Governors requested. The project's champion: Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander, a Republican from Lake Wales.

Florida TaxWatch has yet to publish its annual list of "turkeys," its name for questionable state budget allocations. It usually finds several, however, in the universities, Taxwatch vice president Kurt Wenner said.

Wenner emphasized the list isn't a comment on the value of the programs but on whether they were judged fairly against all the other programs seeking lawmakers' approval.

Meantime, a close look at higher education budgets shows that while state universities lost about 4 percent of their funding this year, a few influential lawmakers managed to get university projects for their areas.

They include an extra $200,000 for the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida, doubling the institute's allocation. UCF is near House Speaker Dean Cannon's Winter Park home.

There is money for the community colleges, too, including $6.9 million to build a classroom complex for Pasco-Hernando Community College in state Rep. Will Weatherford's hometown of Wesley Chapel. Weatherford is in line to become the next House Speaker.

Still, it's no different than any other year, Rouson said.

"In every budget since statehood, this same phenomenon has happened. Some worthy projects don't get funded, some worthy projects do."

But this year was different. Lawmakers faced a nearly $4 billion budget gap, the deepest any of them could remember. They cut state jobs and worker pay and slashed funding to schools, hospitals, even Everglades restoration.

"I don't know of a time in my 14 years that the Legislature has made that sort of reduction in real spending," Alexander said. "I think we have all struggled with some very difficult decisions."

He was determined, however, to fund the USF branch in Polk County, which he's been championing for several years.

Last year, he persuaded colleagues to approve the $46 million to erect the campus' first major buildings, including a pharmacy school.

Former Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed the budget items, and this year the university system Board of Governors requested only $20 million for the new Polytechnic construction.

But Alexander had waited long enough, watching construction start on other USF buildings, he said, while the Polytechnic campus languished.

Approving the Polytechnic money this year was "the equitable thing to do," he said.

USF is happy to have the allocation, USF lobbyist Mark Walsh said, but giving $46 million to one branch in such a tight budget year means that other requests die.

A much needed science building on the main campus in Tampa will open only about 75 percent complete in August, with possibly two of its seven floors unfinished.

"We'll work on the funding we need in the next legislative cycle," said USF spokeswoman Lara Wade.

The next biggest allocation for campus construction this year went to UCF. Of the $21.3 million, $7 million is for engineering and physics buildings that Crist vetoed last year.

The USF Polytechnic and UCF money totals more than $67 million and makes up half of the allocations to all of the 11 state universities for construction and other fixed capital projects.

The money Rouson won for USF is a one-time addition to its Health Sciences operating budget, and he makes no apologies for "working the system" to get it.

A former drug addict, he's followed the research USF is doing on the genetic roots of addiction, he said, and he wanted to do something to push it forward, though he's quick to add that Gov. Rick Scott hasn't signed the budget yet.

He conceded it wasn't part of the traditional request and vetting process, which involves staff analysis and scrutiny in public legislative committee meetings. But that makes it no less important, he said.

"I am 13 years in recovery and clean after treatment" for cocaine addiction, he said. "I am passionate about helping others avoid addiction or get treatment to recover."

Several other university projects were approved late without going the usual route, including $5 million for "targeted" help for Florida A&M University students, $500,000 for a FAMU mosquito research lab in Panama City and $500,000 for long-term care research at Florida State University.

Meanwhile, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, based at USF in St. Petersburg, was turned down for an increase after not receiving any extra funding for several years.

It receives less than $1 million a year to coordinate statewide research into the oceans, particularly the Gulf of Mexico, and to teach students at all levels about how the oceans work and why they're important.

It also operates the two vessels, the Bellows and the Weatherbird II, that carried the crews who were at the center of research efforts after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

"I frankly don't know what we're going to do," said director William Hogarth. The cost of running and maintaining the research vessels keeps going up.

"I'm not sure how we're going to operate.">+Politics)&utm_content=Google+Reader

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