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House speaker builds record of finding cash for college

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Ray Sansom's prowess for securing millions in tax money for his local college is about to be put to the test.

Though Northwest Florida State College, which now employs Sansom, wants $13.2-million in the upcoming fiscal year, the Department of Education is recommending only $748,000, according to records.

In the past, a small construction budget for the school has not stopped the Destin Republican. During the last two years, when he was the House's top budget writer, Sansom helped the college get $35-million above what had been budgeted.

But now Sansom is embroiled in controversy over taking a $110,000 job at the college on the same day he was sworn in as House speaker.

The outcry hit a personal note Wednesday when Sansom's friend, former congressman and MSNBC Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough, wrote a scathing opinion piece in the Pensacola News Journal.

Sansom "has been a friend of mine and a political ally since I first ran for Congress in 1994,'' Scarborough wrote. "But like Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, the Ray Sansom that I have read about bears little resemblance to the guy I have known for 15 years. It is maddening to see what power does to some men."

Since Sansom took the unadvertised college job, it has been revealed that he had close contact with his new boss last year while he worked quietly to arrange additional funding for the school and also to pass legislation that created a state college system that includes Northwest Florida State College.

Sansom has said little about the controversy and on Tuesday and Wednesday, while the House held budget meetings, the new speaker did not respond to repeated requests for interviews.

His spokeswoman, Jill Chamberlin, said he is focused on the upcoming budget session. Sansom's daily schedule showed one meeting after another on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Sansom's predicament is distressing to his colleagues — even Democrats who say the speaker is a genuinely nice guy. They worry that Sansom, by refusing to address the criticism, is doing long-term damage to the House as an institution.

"We're concerned about the image of the Legislature, but we're also concerned about a colleague," said Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg.

Heller, 73, is a tenured professor of special education at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and is a former dean of the campus. As a career educator long before he entered politics, he said of Sansom's college job: "I would have probably not taken that position."

Rep. Franklin Sands of Weston, the House Democratic leader, issued a statement Monday calling on Sansom to be "forthright" about his dealings so the Legislature can focus on a more than $2-billion shortfall in the current budget.

At the same time, others are standing behind Sansom, saying he is not unlike any good legislator who looks out for his community.

"He did nothing illegal," said Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton. "While it seems he may have helped himself, he was serving his own area as best he could. I support him 100 percent."

Sansom has previously said the budget process is transparent and the final spending plan is voted on by the House and Senate before standing up to Gov. Charlie Crist's veto power.

Now, however, the controversy over his new job may make it difficult to overcome budget problems. The quiet way he took the job as college administrator and his record of adding funding for that school late in the budget process, after public committee hearings, would seem counter to the idea of transparency.

Sansom met socially Tuesday in the members' private dining room and seemed to be in good spirits, according to Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. But like other lawmakers, Heller senses Sansom retreating into the speaker's suite, walled off from the media and rarely venturing into public at a time when he should be exhibiting bold, aggressive leadership.

"You can't retreat too far," Heller said. "The corner's going to hit him pretty soon."

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

House speaker builds record of finding cash for college 12/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 19, 2008 3:04pm]
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