In budget talks, last-minute deals for hometown projects

TALLAHASSEE — House and Senate leaders negotiated all day Saturday to settle budget issues as surprise proposals surfaced.

The House backed Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander's last-minute request for $5 million in tax money for the University of South Florida Polytechnic campus in Lakeland, located in Alexander's home county of Polk.

Alexander's surprise request for USF Polytechnic stands out in a state universities budget with millions in cuts and no request from USF for the money.

USF Lakeland figures in a separate funding issue between the chambers. From the college construction program known as PECO, the Senate wants to give the campus $11 million, while the House has offered $3.7 million. The lower amount was recommended by the Board of Governors.

The Lake Wales Republican denied it was a "member project," something House Speaker Larry Cretul specifically outlawed from the last-minute conference committee process.

Asked why it wasn't requested sooner, Alexander said: "I neglected it. I hadn't thought about it, or we would have done it earlier."

Yet Alexander's interest in the project is hardly new. In 1999, when USF began talking about a new Lakeland campus with state officials, the meetings including Alexander, who was then a state representative. He played such a key role in getting state funds in subsequent years for the campus that USF officials have called him the project's quarterback.

Alexander controls companies that own thousands of acres of rural land in Central Florida south of USF Lakeland. In 2005, Alexander helped form a group to lobby the state to build a toll road across much of this land, making it easier to develop. That project is in limbo after the state determined there wasn't enough traffic to warrant it. But projects like the expanded campus, which would allow 16,000 students by 2020, was described by the Department of Transportation as the type of "traffic generator" the toll road would need to become feasible.

Lawmakers partly agreed on Saturday to restore money for public libraries after an outcry that included a few protesters at the Capitol who held large signs that said "Save Our Libraries!!!" But they were still negotiating the source of the replacement $21 million in library money.

A stalemate lingers on House proposals to outlaw stem-cell research at state universities and research-related travel to Cuba and a House proposal to make first-time drivers take a four-hour driver improvement course before receiving a license. The course costs at least $15.

Speaker Cretul ordered members not to raise new issues in budget negotiations, but Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, is pushing the mandatory driver improvement course.

"Many issues came through this Legislature relating to driving performance," Rivera said. "That's really the genesis of this proposal."

Asked if lobbyists for a driving school are pushing the idea, he said: "Absolutely not."

House and Senate budget chairmen have until noon today before unresolved issues are handed to Speaker Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater. A final budget is due on lawmakers' desks by noon Tuesday to allow for a mandatory 72-hour cooling off period before a final vote Friday.

Among the major budget issues okayed by the chairmen:

• Restoration of $7 million in Bright Futures scholarships, unrelated to previous cuts that will force recipients to pay the full cost of upcoming 15 percent tuition hikes.

• A provision to shift some property tax money away from school districts' capital spending to day-to-day operating budgets. Additionally, districts will be able to raise more property taxes to backfill capital budgets, if agreed to by a super-majority of school board members, followed by a public referendum at the next election.

• Allocating $5 million for the University of South Florida's medical school and $1.5 million for the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa.

• Eliminating $50,000 for Haitian-American history in the pre-K-12 budget and restoring funding for the Task Force on African American history to $100,000.

Other unresolved issues:

• Another Senate push to secure funding for Florida Forever, the state's land conservation program.

• Plans for expanded casino gambling. Alexander said talks won't begin until Monday because he "can't focus" on the complicated gambling issues while holding all-day negotiations on the budget.

In budget talks, last-minute deals for hometown projects 05/02/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 2, 2009 11:11pm]

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