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Tampa Bay area lawmakers seek funding for projects with statewide appeal

With state lawmakers trying to manage a monstrous budget deficit, it's not the year for big-ticket local projects.

"The focus is going to be on issues that are more statewide," said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said there are usually more requests for funding.

"It's just there's no money out there so people didn't bother," said Weatherford, who is expected to be the speaker in 2012.

That doesn't mean area lawmakers are without priorities and bills for the session opening Tuesday. A sampling:

Crosstown Connector: Tampa Bay area lawmakers want to use federal stimulus money for the $521 million project to build an elevated road to link Interstate 4 with the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway and the Port of Tampa. State transportation officials have made it a top priority for the region, but legislators said there's uncertainty about how the federal money will be doled out.

Tierra Verde annexation: Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Jim Frishe, R-St. Petersburg, have written a bill meant to stop St. Petersburg's annexation of part of Tierra Verde. The city's bid to add the island neighbor has irked residents. The lawmakers' measure has become known as the "all or nothing bill." The city would have to annex all of the island, and Tierra Verde voters would go to the polls to decide if they want to be annexed. "I'm basically going with the wishes of the community, that is, an island-based community," said Jones, who has the county delegation's backing.

Class size limits: Weatherford has written a bill putting the class size debate back in voters' hands. His proposal would let schools meet class size requirements using a school-wide average, rather than a hard student count for individual classrooms. Without a change, the hard counts in every core-curriculum classroom will begin in the 2010-11 academic year. If the Legislature approves Weatherford's plan, 60 percent of voters would have to agree.

informer risk: Rachel Hoffman, a Countryside High School graduate, died as an informer in a drug sting gone bad last year in Tallahassee. Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, have written bills that would tighten the laws and procedures authorities follow to use informers. But police and prosecutors worry it could bog down police work, limit the number of informers and blur distinct lines of authority. "It will be difficult," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, a co-sponsor.

Sinkhole insurance: Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, and Fasano are taking another stab at lowering insurance bills because of sinkhole risk in Pasco and Hernando counties. Their legislation would require insurers to reduce rates if a county strengthens its building codes so sinkhole claims are less likely, as Pasco is pushing. But insurers worry the bill would force them to delve into a maze of local codes, and the requirements could be vague.

Contaminated property: Last March, residents of St. Petersburg's Azalea neighborhood were shocked to learn about groundwater contamination at a nearby Raytheon site, discovered by previous owners in 1991. Now Sen. Charlie Justice and Rep. Rick Kriseman, both St. Petersburg Democrats, have bills mandating notification times for the Department of Environmental Protection. "We've got to make sure that the public is more aware of what's going on," Justice said. Kriseman said the two have been playing phone tag, but hopefully they'll "get (the bills) paired up."

wireless devices and drivers: Legg revives a bill from last year's session restricting minors from using wireless electronics such as cell phones and iPods with headphones while driving. "It seems as though, at a minimum, the time has come to keep minors from their cell phones while driving, if not adults," Legg said. His increased motivation stems from a tragic head-on crash in November that killed two Pasco teen drivers. Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Tampa, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, have similar bills.

Early voting sites: Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark came under fire last fall for opening only three sites for early voting. Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, has one of many bills introduced this session to improve voter access. She wants to establish a formula for the number of sites in each county and extend the hours. Joyner hopes there's enough interest between the measures to get something passed.

Tampa Bay area lawmakers seek funding for projects with statewide appeal 03/01/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 8:21am]
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