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As other school projects were slashed, Sansom got $25.5 million for Northwest Florida State

TALLAHASSEE — Ousted House Speaker Ray Sansom has defended supersizing a $1 million budget item into $25.5 million for his hometown college "because the money was there."

But while the Destin Republican was showing such generosity, funding for projects at scores of other schools was being slashed.

The stark contrast further amplifies the controversial connections between Sansom and Northwest Florida State College that led to an ongoing grand jury investigation and cost him his position atop the House. (After two years of Sansom's budget largesse, the school hired him to an unadvertised six-figure job in November.)

A review of state records shows community colleges were forced to cut $42.5 million out of the state's construction budget for the current fiscal year, which was approved last spring, because the utility taxes supporting that budget were dwindling as Floridians conserved energy to save money.

• A Wesley Chapel branch of Pasco-Hernando Community College took a $6.5 million hit.

• Plans to renovate space at Miami-Dade Community College were scaled back by nearly $1.3 million.

• The library and fine arts building at Polk Community College suffered a $350,000 reduction.

Everyone shared the pain, including, at first, Northwest Florida State. But when it came time last May for the budget to be finalized, cuts to two smaller projects at the Panhandle college were restored, to the penny.

The $1 million installment for a renovated student services building at the Niceville campus avoided the knife all together, and then got a $24.5 million boost from Sansom, according to records reviewed by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau.

The money will renovate existing space and add a floor to a building for a leadership institute — a project that Sansom and college president Bob Richburg worked behind the scenes to include in the budget. The new floor for the leadership institute hadn't been requested in previous years.

Sansom denies any correlation between the funds he secured for the small Panhandle college and the $110,000 job he was given in November, which he quit amid a statewide outcry. Over the two years that Sansom was the main budget writer for the House, the school got more than $35 million in extra or accelerated money.

Sansom said money spent on college construction is good for the economy and said the budget process is a transparent one.

The construction funds, known as Public Education Construction Outlay, or PECO, money, are supplied by taxes on utilities such as electricity, natural gas and telephones. The fund rises and falls with the state of Florida's economy. Last year, the supply of revenue was dwindling.

"People were conserving more," said Amy Baker, the state's chief economist.

Last March, Baker and the rest of the financial experts in Tallahassee met in what is known as a revenue estimating conference. They informed lawmakers there would be $180 million less in PECO money for the budget that Sansom and others were assembling. The share of that decrease to be absorbed by the state's 28 community colleges was $42.5 million.

The Department of Education retooled the PECO budget to reflect the changes and, by the end of March, it had proposed an overall $306 million budget.

For the most part, the cuts were locked in when the Legislature finished the budget in May. But the final spending plan still ballooned to $365 million, with nearly half the increase going to Northwest Florida State College, according to records.

"If you can close the doors and close out a budget and then suddenly, someone gets $25 million, I think that's a grave concern because it means the budget process is not working properly," said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, the higher education appropriations chair in the Senate.

The other big winner: Indian River Community College, which got $18.5 million for a science and math center in Port St. Lucie. The project was not in the original PECO budget, meaning it was added at the last minute.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who was Senate president last year, has refused to discuss whether he had any role in that budget decision.

In an interview on Dec. 1, Sansom's first day on the job as a vice president of the college, Sansom told the Times/Herald that the PECO money was an economic stimulus tool and said the Northwest Florida State College project was one of a handful that legislative leaders decided should get accelerated funding "because the money was there this year."

When asked this week how that argument squares with documents showing cuts to other college projects, Sansom didn't answer directly. He said in an e-mail that his school's project was one of 19 that the Legislature decided to accelerate. He also noted that a number of projects funded were not on a Department of Education request list.

Ultimately, Sansom said, the entire budget is available for all to see. "Each PECO project is a line item in the budget — a budget that is provided to the 160 members of the House and Senate." Then there is a 72-hour review period followed by vote and review by the governor.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Alex Leary can be reached at aleary@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

As other school projects were slashed, Sansom got $25.5 million for Northwest Florida State 02/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, February 16, 2009 11:14am]
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