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Crist's hard line on the budget didn't extend to all projects

Rep. Ray Sansom was contacted for advice on how to avoid the governor’s veto.

Rep. Ray Sansom was contacted for advice on how to avoid the governor’s veto.

TALLAHASSEE — Although he vetoed most other college construction projects that sidestepped budget procedures in 2007, Gov. Charlie Crist spared Rep. Ray Sansom's last-minute proposal to build a classroom facility at an airport.

Newly released records show Crist took a hard line against community college building projects that weren't part of initial budget recommendations. Of 14 such projects sent to Crist, he vetoed nine.

It has long been known that Crist didn't veto Sansom's $6 million request for Northwest Florida State College, but new records show the governor's office questioned the project and asked for documentation to justify funding. The school's president sent e-mail messages to Sansom, R-Destin, seeking "advice" on how to avoid a veto.

"Nobody expressed any concern," Crist said Friday, adding that Sansom's project "looked legitimate to the way it was titled."

But a grand jury has concluded otherwise. In April, Sansom and college president Bob Richburg were indicted on charges that they falsified the state budget to use taxpayer money to build a hangar for the jet business of a mutual friend. That man, Jay Odom, has since been indicted in the matter as well.

There is no evidence Crist knew Sansom's building was going to be used by a private developer. Still, the appearance of favoritism amplifies a central point of a grand jury report in the Sansom case — that a few powerful lawmakers enjoy the spoils of an often furtive budget process.

The other major unbudgeted project Crist let pass was $16.5 million for a vocational center at Indian River State College, a pet of then-Senate President Ken Pruitt. (Another Sansom request for his favorite school, an extra $3 million for a separate project, also survived.)

"As a freshman governor, I think he was avoiding unnecessary conflict with the House and Senate leadership," said Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando, which saw two major projects vetoed by Crist in that budget year.

The Sansom project appeared in the budget as "Okaloosa JT Use Emergency Response Workforce Center," and the two-paragraph justification the college president worked up for the governor's office referred to a "state-of-the art" emergency response and training facility.

What's not in the budget documents is the humble origin of this particular project. Unlike many of the vetoed projects that were in the pipeline to be funded in future years, the Okaloosa JT Use Emergency Response Workforce Center didn't exist on paper until that very year, when Sansom said he called Richburg as the budget was being written and asked if he wanted a $6 million emergency training center.

Also left unsaid was that developer and major GOP campaign donor Odom was involved and planned to use part of the building for part of his corporate jet business at Destin Airport.

"If it's camouflaged or mislabeled, it's very difficult, if not impossible to change and alter things," Crist said.

He noted that after the indictments, he demanded Northwest Florida State College abandon the $6 million project and return the money — which it did — and said he supported the firing of college president Richburg.

Crist denied he was showing deference to legislative leaders, both of whom are Republicans like him. Asked if there was any favoritism by his office he said, "not that I'm aware of."

Among the projects that got nixed was a first-responder training facility at Palm Beach Community College that had gone through proper channels and had a mission similar to the stated goal of Sansom's project.

"We were very excited about it," said Palm Beach Community College president Dennis Gallon. "There was a critical need for this training."

Two years later, the college still hasn't gotten the funding.

But Gallon declined to comment on how things turned out. "I still have an institution to lead," he explained. "I still have to get my projects through the process."

Sansom used that system to full advantage in 2007 and 2008, when he was House budget chairman. He helped Northwest Florida State College get $35 million in additional or accelerated funding. All that unraveled after Sansom took a six-figure, part-time job at the college on the same day he was sworn in as House speaker last November. He had to give up the college job and was ousted as speaker. Now he awaits trial.

After lawmakers approved the budget — Sansom says at that point everyone had a chance to review its contents — an unknown staff member in Crist's office contacted the Department of Education about the airport project. A DOE employee then called Northwest Florida State College.

That prompted a May 5 e-mail from Richburg to Sansom under the heading "need advice." The short description that followed called for a "state-of-the art" emergency response and training center.

Other projects had far more extensive backup material if the governor's office wanted to review it. The Palm Beach public safety training center, for instance, came with a three-page list with a highly detailed cost breakdown.

Sansom has said that in 2007 lawmakers pushed projects to spur economic activity. Crist, however, was aware of the worsening Florida economy when he vetoed a record $459 million from the budget.

"We must remember that each and every dollar we spend is the people's hard-earned money and we have a responsibility to spend it wisely," Crist said at the time.

Alex Leary can be reached at leary@sptimes.com

Crist's hard line on the budget didn't extend to all projects 06/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 1:58pm]
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