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Florida lawmaker steered extra millions to college he now works for

Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin was the House budget chief.

Rep. Ray Sansom of Destin was the House budget chief.

TALLAHASSEE — Last spring, the agency overseeing Florida's colleges made a list of budget requests in what was one of the leanest years in modern history.

Northwest Florida State College was slated to get $1-million for a building project.

Yet when lawmakers signed off on the budget in May, the school had snagged $25.5-million — the single largest project of any college.

For that, it could thank state Rep. Ray Sansom, the Destin Republican who controlled the House budget.

The assistance, documented in a memo the St. Petersburg Times obtained this week through a public records request, highlights the close relationship between Sansom and the college president, Bob Richburg.

Last week that affiliation burst into public view when Sansom was given a $110,000 job as a vice president at the college.

It came on the same day Sansom was sworn in as speaker of the Florida House, a juxtaposition that has elicited cries of cronyism.

Sansom, who has a master's degree in education, denies any correlation and says he was merely doing his job as a citizen legislator.

But the extra $24.5-million was not the only boon to the school, renamed Northwest Florida State College in July under legislation Sansom supported that boosted the school's ability to offer bachelor's degrees.

State records show the college received $1-million more than initially budgeted for an extension center in Walton County and $105,000 more than initially budgeted for general renovation.

Sansom also got $750,000 added to the budget for "startup funds" for the college's leadership institute, according to records the House released Wednesday. The Times reported last week that it got $200,000, but that was based on a preliminary request.

The amount ballooned some time before a Dec. 5, 2007, meeting between Sansom and college president Richburg. A memo from the meeting details how the two discussed accelerating funding — hence $1-million becoming $25.5-million.

That was the single-largest public education capital outlay (PECO) award for community college projects this year.

Not even Miami-Dade College, which has 160,000 students to Northwest Florida State College's 15,000, fared better in a single budget line.

The $31.1-million in overall PECO funds the college secured this year topped the $23-million awarded to Pasco-Hernando Community College and the $16.8-million given to St. Petersburg College.

It is important to consider that building projects have different time lines, so a one-year snapshot only tells part of the story. And the money provided this year could have come down the road, though the budget crisis could have hurt those prospects.

Nonetheless, Northwest Florida State College's success is notable given controversy surrounding Sansom's hiring last week. He is expected to become a full-time employee next summer.

It comes as lawmakers will likely have to return to Tallahassee next month or in January to cut hundreds of millions from the current budget due to rapidly declining tax revenue. And next spring, when a new budget is assembled, lawmakers face a shortfall approaching $6-billion.

Sansom has already said that no money for pet projects will be approved in the coming year.

Sansom and Richburg deny a quid pro quo. "I'm qualified for this job. I'm well qualified," Sansom, 46, said last week.

At the college, Sansom will oversee development and planning, including oversight of grant acquisition, fostering relations with the business community and overseeing a training school for emergency response teams.

He has a long relationship with the school. In the 1980s, he put himself through what was then Okaloosa-Walton Community College. His wife also attended.

Sansom said the college, located in Niceville near his hometown of Destin, is a vital player in the emergence of the region and can train a legion of new professionals, boosting the economy.

"I'm very excited about the opportunity," Sansom said. "I term out in two years, and I want to make my permanent home there at the college."

Alex Leary can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or aleary@sptimes.com.

Florida lawmaker steered extra millions to college he now works for 11/27/08 [Last modified: Sunday, November 30, 2008 12:00am]

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