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Crist weighs veto of $1 million FIU grant for Latin American conference once sponsored by the Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Charlie Crist looks over the new state budget, he'll see three words over and over again: Florida International University.

Miami's FIU was politically well positioned this year with a Miami lawmaker in charge of assembling the budget — and it shows. The school is even seeking a $1 million grant partly on the grounds that one of its partners in the venture, the Miami Herald, cannot afford to give the university the financial backing it once provided.

The Herald and the St. Petersburg Times jointly operate a news bureau in the state capital. Like newspapers everywhere, the Herald has endured readership and revenue declines and staff reductions in recent years.

The budget on Crist's desk contains $1 million for an annual Americas Conference, or Florida Conference on Democracy, at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables on Sept. 14-15. That's twice as much money as past years' appropriations, and it is also used to support the Inter-American Conference of Mayors, FIU-sponsored events in Latin America and staff support and expenses for FIU personnel.

"At this point, the Miami Herald does not have the resources available to fund the Americas Conference on its own, and the county does not have any prospect of providing the level of support required," FIU said in a background paper on its request.

Elissa Vanaver, the Heralds vice president for human resources, said the paper has had no involvement in the university's solicitation of tax dollars.

"They're seeking funds. We're not seeking funds," Vanaver said. "This is an event that has gone on for 12 years, and we've always had sponsors to make it viable."

She said the Herald's financial commitment as "substantial."

At a meeting with Herald's editorial board Wednesday, Crist said his budget director, Jerry McDaniel, is checking the budget to make sure items were properly vetted by lawmakers.

"I'm really surprised frankly that the Legislature would do as much as they did and the way that they did it at the end of the session, instead of having all of these things go through a very thorough committee vetting," he said. "So we're looking at it with a jaundiced eye but not with a conclusive position yet."

FIU also is awaiting approval of $32.5 million for a health building; $18 million for a student support services building and $3.5 million for a neuroscience center.

FIU's lobbyist Steve Sauls credited budget chairmen Rep. David Rivera of Miami and Sen. J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales as the key supporters of the items.

Elaborating on the school's reference to the Herald's financial condition, Sauls said: "We all know that Knight Ridder dissolved and McClatchy came in, and it's a tough time for newspapers," referring to the newspaper's new corporate ownership.

McClatchy Co., a California-based publishing chain, bought the Herald as part of its purchase of 32 Knight Ridder papers in 2006, taking on sizable debt just before the recession.

The Herald has been involved in the event for more than a decade, and two years ago, FIU entered into a partnership with the Herald to co-sponsor the gathering of hemispheric leaders. Last year, Herald publisher David Landsberg sent FIU a letter that offered to create a five-year partnership with FIU's Institute for Public Management and Community Service.

"We think that there is great power in promoting democracy across Latin America together," Landsberg wrote. "We are very much open to you continuing to seek support from the state of Florida as well as from other relevant foundations."

The newspaper organized the event for 10 years, FIU said in a background paper, but "for financial reasons" the university had to find a new co-sponsor.

Neither the Herald nor FIU would disclose the paper's financial contribution to the event.

Crist has said of member projects in the $70.4 billion budget that "my inclination is to veto all of them unless it can be shown that some item for a university or a community college is really what it purports to be." The reference was to the ill-fated "emergency operations center" championed by the-future House Speaker Ray Sansom in 2007 that included hangar space for a well-connected Destin businessman.

Even though Crist is on the prowl for turkeys, this particular item poses a political dilemma for the him. The media-conscious governor would be scratching an event sponsored in part by a major newspaper — and killing an international program where the focus is on one of Crist's favorite words: freedom.

However, FIU employs Marco Rubio, Crist's leading rival in the race for the U.S. Senate, as an instructor.

Crist weighs veto of $1 million FIU grant for Latin American conference once sponsored by the Miami Herald 05/19/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 9:31pm]
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