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At posh retreat, Florida GOP leaders wield budget ax

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Washington has pork. Tallahassee has turkey. Or did.

The annual ritual of bringing money home for local projects is coming to an uncharitable halt just before the holidays. On Wednesday, legislative leaders declared that no local budget requests — ridiculed by some as "turkeys" — will be honored in the upcoming session.

No dog parks. No ballfields. No museums.

Don't ask, House Speaker Ray Sansom and Senate President Jeff Atwater declared.

But the austere message was delivered in a wildly contrasting setting — a $400-a-night beach resort that is hosting a retreat for more than 70 GOP House members and their families.

"Your room is your own personal luxury oasis, rich with amenities," including an iPod docking station, flat-screen TVs and 100 percent Egyptian cotton linens, boasts the WaterColor Web site.

The Republican Party of Florida is picking up the tab (it would not reveal how much, though it stressed rooms came at a discount) but the WaterColor get-away has garnered plenty of notice amid a time of national financial crisis.

"I don't think anyone would disagree it shows a lack of sensitivity," said Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a campaign finance watchdog.

Sansom, who started the retreats here after the 2006 elections, has scoffed at the backlash, saying no taxpayer money is being used. Attendees defended it, too.

"It shouldn't be called a retreat," said Rep. Faye Culp, R-Tampa. "This is work. I haven't even seen the beach. It's cold out there but I haven't had time, anyway."

Sansom has put a fine point on making the three-day affair, which ends Friday, a serious discussion on the budget, and Wednesday afternoon was devoted to the subject. The Destin Republican also barred lobbyists from attending, though their contributions to the party could be used to offset the expense.

"We're not here to be lobbied," Sansom said in an interview after providing an overview of the budget. "We're here to think."

House Democrats held their own retreat Wednesday but were ensconced in a dull, third-floor conference room of the Florida Education Association in Tallahassee.

As the GOP meeting concluded in the evening, lawmakers dined on roasted fingerling potatoes and grilled Ashley Farms chicken with foraged mushroom sauce. And fried bay shrimp.

Amid the pleasures, Republican lawmakers were feeling the strain. Some joked about wishing they'd lost. Maybe their Democratic opponents would like to deal with a projected $3.5-billion deficit for next fiscal year. Lawmakers may have to come back next month to address a cavern in the current budget.

Local budget requests are a staple of Tallahassee, just as in Washington. Last year, there were about $2-billion in requests, though not all were approved.

The state watchdog group TaxWatch identified $110.5-million in pet projects, dubbing them "turkeys" because they do not get fully vetted in the legislative process. Turkeys included $1.1-million for an emergency shelter in Hernando County and $125,000 for the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

"There's going to be a lot of disappointment, but this sends the message that we're not kidding," said Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa. "We have no money."

At posh retreat, Florida GOP leaders wield budget ax 11/19/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 20, 2008 7:25pm]
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