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Florida state budget process more open in this Legislature

Former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, left, voted for the budget that included millions for Sen. J.D. Alexander’s two pet projects.

Former Florida House Speaker Ray Sansom, left, voted for the budget that included millions for Sen. J.D. Alexander’s two pet projects.

TALLAHASSEE — Before the scandal and the grand jury indictments, Northwest Florida State College was hoping this would be another banner budget year for the Niceville campus.

With Rep. Ray Sansom at its side, the school had an eye on about $13 million for construction.

But the state budget lawmakers approved Friday gives the school a paltry $576,000.

It shouldn't feel too bad.

None of Florida's colleges and universities got more construction money than state oversight agencies recommended. The flat line is a reflection of lean times but also a conscious attempt to reform a secretive budget process long exploited by powerful politicians, most recently and notably former House Speaker Sansom.

"This time they followed the rules," said Kurt Wenner of TaxWatch. "That's good news for the taxpayers."

The nonprofit policy group has made an annual sport of identifying budget "turkeys," including $6 million that Sansom, as the House budget chief, added late in the 2007 session for an airport building that became the subject of a grand jury investigation.

The jury, which three weeks ago indicted Sansom and the college president on felony official misconduct charges, said the building was disguised in state budget documents as an education facility but was to be used for a corporate jet business owned by Sansom's friend, Jay Odom.

This year, there were no surprise, last-minute additions to the public construction capital outlay, a pot of money filled by utility taxes devoted to college construction projects.

About $179 million was doled out to the state's 11 universities and 28 community colleges. The money matched the requests by the Board of Governors and the Department of Education.

But one powerful lawmaker managed to get more money for his pet projects. Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, added $7.7 million for the new Lakeland campus of the University of South Florida, and $847,000 for Polk Community College.

Alexander, who was the chief budget writer in the Senate this year, did not enhance the projects using public construction capital outlay dollars. Rather, he got the House to agree on the final day of budget negotiations to add about $10 million in general revenue to the schools' construction budget.

Alexander's maneuver raises some of the same questions of equity that were at the heart of the Sansom grand jury's stinging condemnation of the state budget system.

"This process allows taxpayer money to be budgeted for special purposes by those few legislators who happen to be in a position of power," the grand jury report reads.

How is it fair for his favored schools to get more? "Because I work 20 hours a day for the last many years … on the business of the Legislature," Alexander replied.

When pressed to explain how it's fair, he said: "Life is not fair."

Alexander noted that he signaled his intentions in the Senate budget from the start of the session, rather than beefing up funding at the last minute as others have done.

"If the Senate had a problem with it," Alexander said, "they would have voted it down."

Sansom, who was the House budget writer in 2007 and 2008, steered about $35 million in extra or accelerated funding to the school. He has defended his largesse, saying he added the $6 million for the airport project because more money became available in that year's budget, though other projects had been slashed. He and Richburg have denied the building was going to used as a hangar.

The college has abandoned the project amid the storm of controversy, and fired Richburg. The $6 million will be available in the capital outlay budget for spending elsewhere next year.

On Friday, as a rank-and-file member of the House, Sansom voted for the $66.5 billion budget.

Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com.

Florida state budget process more open in this Legislature 05/09/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 11, 2009 6:58am]
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