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Senate president, House speaker tout legislative accomplishments during tour

Maj. Gen. Emmett Titshaw didn't get far into his tour of the Brooksville armory before he brought up some trouble on his mind.

The Florida National Guard's highest-ranking officer came to town Wednesday morning to show state Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford how $2 million in the state's budget would modernize the 21-year-old armory on Spring Hill Drive. But just as the group walked into the lobby of the low-slung brick building, Titshaw brought up the across-the-board federal spending cuts known as the sequester.

Starting July 8, as hurricane season ramps up, about 1,000 military technicians will receive furlough notices. The technicians, who are not on active duty but wear the uniform on the job and tend to military aircraft like the Blackhawk helicopters housed behind the Brooksville armory, must take up to 11 Mondays off, unpaid, by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Their absence could translate to a slower reaction if a hurricane or other disaster hits, Titshaw said. Four helicopters likely will be grounded for the rest of the year.

"It's a big deal for us," Titshaw said. "It's really going to create a readiness risk."

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, called it "outrageous" and vowed to work with the general and Weatherford to add their voices to growing concern in Washington.

"Maybe there's a way to mitigate (the cuts) in Florida because we're at risk to a much greater extent than a lot of other states are for the next six months," said Weatherford of Wesley Chapel.

The concerns about federal funding contrasted with the point of the visit, which marked the first stop on what Weatherford and Gaetz dubbed their Work Plan Florida Tour. The goal is to highlight what they see as success stories of their joint legislative agenda and the 2013 state budget.

Among them is $15 million for renovations to the Brooksville armory and five others across the state, including Crystal River and Lake Wales.

In 2004, the guard started a 51-armory renovation program that Titshaw made his top priority when he took the adjutant general post in 2010.

The renovations to armories in Dade City and Bradenton are complete. St. Petersburg's is under way.

The $2 million project in Brooksville will begin in about eight months. Built in 1992, the armory is not nearly as old as the state average of 46 years, but the leaky roof needs to be replaced and the doors and windows don't meet modern hurricane and energy-efficiency standards. The plumbing, air-handling and electrical systems will also be upgraded.

After this phase, eight more armories will remain.

The improvements are critical, as military officials consider cutting personnel levels and closing facilities in coming years, Titshaw said.

"This renovation program is going to posture us for success because all of the states are going be evaluated on their facilities and their ability to sustain the force structure," Titshaw said during opening remarks Wednesday.

"The Legislature has your back," Gaetz told Titshaw and about two dozen uniformed guardsmen.

Among them was Kyle Nugent, a helicopter pilot and the son of U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent. In an interview with the Times later Wednesday, Nugent said Congress has already passed legislation that allows the Department of Defense some flexibility in how to administer the sequester cuts and would keep working on the issue.

"We're going to do everything we can to try to reverse the effects," he said.

Later Wednesday morning, Gaetz and Weatherford visited the Child Advocacy Center in Brooksville. The site used a bump in state funding the last two years to hire a full-time counselor to work with victims of child abuse.

Then it was on to Tampa Bay Technical High School in Tampa. Along with Hillsborough County school superintendent Mary Ellen Elia, state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, and others, Weatherford and Gaetz visited classrooms for veterinarian assisting, mechanics and commercial art programs.

They said they chose the technical school because it was a successful example of "lashing" education to the current job market. A Florida high student was the 100,000th person given a national industry certification, Gaetz said.

"When I told (Jeb) Bush that a few weeks ago, he said, 'What's it going to take to get to 500,000?' " he said.

Students who earn industry certifications have real currency in earning employment, Gaetz said, holding up his political science and religion undergraduate degrees as a counterexample.

"All I can do is be a bipolar, boring person in a coffeehouse," he said. "But these people are getting real jobs."

The tour continues today in Orlando, Lakeland and Lake Wales.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@tampabay.com or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.

Senate president, House speaker tout legislative accomplishments during tour 05/22/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 12:01am]
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