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Will Weatherford's tenure as House speaker will benefit Pasco County

WESLEY CHAPEL — In just a few months, Will Weatherford will become the first Pasco resident in more than a century to earn the title Speaker of the House.

This has locals wondering: What does it mean to have a hometown speaker?

"It puts a little bit of a wider spotlight on our county," said longtime County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand. "For those of us that have lived here forever, or a long time, that's really cool."

Besides the extra civic pride, there are other more tangible benefits. Like a boost in state money.

"What it should mean is that Pasco County will benefit from those leadership positions like other regions of the state have," said County Administrator John Gallagher. "And I'm not just saying only Pasco County, but the (Tampa Bay) region should also benefit."

Don't expect a blank check. As one of a handful of top politicians crafting statewide policy, Weatherford will have a lot more on his plate besides local issues. He'll have near life or death control over legislation in the House. "While I care about my community," he said, "my job as speaker is to take a very broad view."

But even powerful House speakers must return home to their constituents.

"All politics is local," said Rep. Richard Corcoran, quoting former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill. "Your priority is always on the issues … concerning the people you represent directly."

Some recent examples: Last year Weatherford secured $4 million in state road money for a planned expansion of Raymond James Financial in Wesley Chapel. University of South Florida supporters credit Weatherford with restoring drastic cuts to the Tampa campus during a battle this spring with Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales.

Expect Weatherford to push again for the final installment of funding for the planned Wesley Chapel campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College. Last year, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $6.9 million for the college.

In this year's no-frills budget signed by the belt-tightening governor, Weatherford got $1 million for a community center in Lacoochee. Derided as hometown pork by critics, that kind of spending might have been easy to find when the state was flush with cash. It's much more rare these days.

It's no coincidence such a project appeared in the district of the incoming speaker from Pasco.

Corcoran, R-Trinity, is set to give Pasco a second helping of good news. Two years after Weatherford steps down, he will take over the speaker's gavel if Republicans maintain control of the chamber. Said Weatherford: "Two scoops of ice cream are better than one."

• • •

Weatherford, 32, will be Florida's youngest speaker and one of only five men from Tampa Bay to hold the position since 1972. Before he was elected in 2006, Weatherford was an aide to former Speaker Allan Bense of Panama City and married his daughter, Courtney. They have two daughters are expecting a third, just before the November election.

Weatherford will have major influence over whether Gov. Scott's agenda passed. For example, can the state afford to further reduce the corporate tax rate? He could use that influence to win the governor's support for legislation important to Pasco.

Weatherford considers himself "an ear to listen" to local officials' concerns.

"It kind of guarantees Pasco County to have a meaningful seat at the table for the next six years," he said. "When decisions are being made about resources, we have a seat at the table."

At the top of Gallagher's wish list: cash for major roads like U.S. 41 and State Roads 52 and 54.

"Now would be time for them to help us improve the state roads within the county," Gallagher said. "In my opinion, we've been jumped over as far as transportation improvements."

That might not be a bad wish. County Commissioner Ted Schrader recently met with Weatherford about a boost in state road funding. In 2009, the Legislature approved higher auto tag fees to plug a budget hole. Lawmakers have redirected $240 million of those fees to the state transportation fund in next year's budget. That is expected to increase to $400 million the following year.

"There's an opportunity for us to be able to receive some state dollars over and above what we may have gotten in the past," Schrader said at a recent commission meeting. That state money might not be spread equally. He reasoned that Weatherford might be more willing to champion projects in his own East Pasco district. (Schrader also lives in the east side of the county.) Come 2016, he said, Corcoran might support more projects in Central and West Pasco.

"If we can oblige Rep. Weatherford, and then sort of check the calendar when Rep. Corcoran is in line, then you can move to be able to keep that funding going countywide," Schrader said. "They're obviously going to be very parochial. They're going to be looking for those dollars in their own respective districts."

Weatherford put it this way: "Those resources are going to be distributed around the state. I want to make sure Pasco doesn't get the short end of the stick."

• • •

A House speaker's power has a natural ebb and flow, and Weatherford is likely at his zenith right now. This summer, he's raising cash to help elect Republican House candidates. After the election, lawmakers from both parties will try to stay on his good side. If they don't, it could be a long two years for any legislation they file.

Normally, Weatherford's — and Pasco's — power would begin to wane sometime in his second year as speaker. But with Corcoran set to take over in 2016, legislators know this time could be different.

Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco compared the situation to a one-two punch. "Weatherford is like the left jab," he said. "But if they don't watch out, Corcoran could be coming with the right hook."

Nocco should know. He and Corcoran were staffers under then-House Speaker Marco Rubio in 2007. During that time he struck up a friendship with Weatherford, a rookie lawmaker who only weeks into his first session lined up the votes to be speaker himself one day. Another connection to Tallahassee's power structure: Nocco's wife, Bridget, is a top Republican fundraiser.

Nocco already helped secure a boost for the county. At his suggestion, Weatherford added an extra $1 million in this year's budget for Pasco's child protective investigators. Money for other counties remained flat. The two men justified the expense because Pasco's investigators have long earned less per case than other large counties.

Don't be surprised if the money remains in the budget for at least the next two years.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

Will Weatherford's tenure as House speaker will benefit Pasco County 06/02/12 [Last modified: Saturday, June 2, 2012 2:58pm]

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