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Rubio's campaign image belies history of $250 million in pork requests

Republican U.S. Senate front-runner Marco Rubio brags on his Web site that he didn't officially request budget pork in his last four years as a leader in the Florida House.

But during Rubio's eight years in office — including the final two when he was House speaker — he unofficially helped push loads of hometown spending: $250 million, according to a Times/Herald analysis of little-known budget documents.

The budget items linked to Rubio from 2000 to 2008 are part of a list compiled yearly by the governor's office to track hometown spending.

Most of Rubio's budget items benefited his home county of Miami-Dade — from a $50,000 grant sought for a Coral Gables park to $80 million for a University of Miami genomics project. A total of $25 million in requests were vetoed by the governor.

The amount of budget money connected to Rubio attests to his skill as a lawmaker but also contrasts with his campaign image as a tight-fisted spending hawk crusading against "earmarks'' that have plagued the budget process in Washington.

Rubio wouldn't comment and his campaign referred questions to consultant Albert Martinez, who worked in the House under Rubio. Martinez said Rubio tried to cut taxes and spending, not increase them.

"Marco Rubio's a limited-government conservative," Martinez said. "He's not a no-government conservative."

The budget items also shed light on times when Rubio's public job as a legislator dovetailed with his private interests.

One appropriation for Miami-Dade County was sought by lobbyists who worked at his law firm. Another item aided a friend's fight for a Florida Turnpike contract. Other proposals gave big sums to Florida International University and Jackson Memorial Hospital, where Rubio later worked as a consultant.

Martinez said the items linked to Rubio helped the whole county, and he described the spending for the hospital and university as necessary and non-controversial. Martinez said the items weren't "turkeys'' — Tallahassee parlance for hometown spending lawmakers obtain for their districts, often with little scrutiny.

The governor's office budget spreadsheets are nicknamed "turkey lists," but Martinez said Rubio's projects weren't turkeys as defined by the business group TaxWatch.

Word of the turkey list only surfaced this year as Gov. Charlie Crist battled Rubio for the Republican Senate primary. Big government spending has emerged as a top issue for Republicans this election year, with Crist and Rubio battling over who spent more taxpayer money. The list shows that Crist didn't veto much from Rubio — just $3 million.

Crist had budget priorities of his own: $222,000 for a personal videographer and $7.5 million for a government institute at his hometown St. Petersburg College, where his sister worked. Both items were in 2007.

Martinez said the entire turkey list is suspect because it is maintained by Crist's Office of Policy & Budget.

Rubio didn't make all his spending requests solo. Of the 119 items bearing Rubio's name, 81 of them were co-sponsored by other legislators. Nor did Rubio bring home the most bacon from 1999 to 2008. His former legislative counterpart, Republican Senate President Ken Pruitt, was associated with $476 million in spending projects — almost double Rubio's list.

Donna Arduin, budget chief for former Gov. Jeb Bush, said she created the list in 1999 because the budget "was a mess." So, as the final budget took shape, the governor's staff would speak to legislative staff and lawmakers to figure out who inserted what items into the budget — a process that continues today.

The items are listed by year in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets with the budget line number, the affected agencies and counties, the associated lawmakers and a brief description. Before word of the list leaked out, the only way to easily track spending associated with lawmakers was to check Community Budget Issue Request forms. The forms were created after Bush's first year in office to offer a more open and systemic way for lawmakers to ask for hometown project approvals.

On his Web site, in a section called "The Facts," Rubio boasts: "During Rubio's last four years in the House, he did not file any individual member budget requests'' — a reference to CBIR forms.

While it's true he did not file the specific forms, the turkey list and interviews with current and former staffers and lawmakers from the House, Senate and governor's office indicate that Rubio — like legislators from both parties — placed items into the budget, even while he was speaker.

Crist has also criticized Rubio's teaching contract with Florida International University, which hired Rubio as a part-time professor for $69,000. The turkey list ties Rubio to a total of $21 million for an FIU hurricane center and medical school during Rubio's last years in office.

Former FIU president Mitch Maidique, who hired Rubio, repeatedly has defended Rubio as being "worth every penny'' as an accomplished young politician-teacher.

The budget list also links Rubio to a $20 million special line item for Jackson Memorial Hospital in 2008. Months later, Rubio established a consulting firm with a former aide and scored an $8,000 monthly consulting contract with the hospital.

Because it would have paid less than $100,000 a year, the contract was a no-bid deal that didn't have to undergo a vote of the Public Health Trust, a county agency that runs Jackson.

Rubio's spokesman, Martinez, said every Miami-Dade member supported Jackson, the state's largest provider of charity care. Rubio no longer works for Jackson, and he has stressed that he never lobbied for the hospital.

Rubio did work as a local-government lobbyist through his former law firm, Becker & Poliakoff. In 2002, Becker & Poliakoff — but not Rubio specifically — served as a lobbyist for Miami-Dade County on a request for $5 million for community rehabilitation projects. Rubio sponsored that item, which was vetoed.

Martinez said Rubio was a lawyer for the firm, not a lobbyist in the strict sense of the word.

Martinez says Rubio's Republican credentials speak for themselves.

"For anyone to suggest that Marco Rubio isn't a less taxing, less spending Republican is silly," he said. "If Charlie Crist wants to talk about who's more fiscally conservative, that's a debate we're willing to have."

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

Rubio's campaign image belies history of $250 million in pork requests 03/09/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 10, 2010 1:11pm]
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