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Senator wants endowment fund to lease Alligator Alley

TALLAHASSEE — Seeking to help spark the state's lagging economy, a powerful senator is proposing the lease of South Florida's Alligator Alley to a state-run endowment fund.

Senate Majority Leader Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, said the idea would bolster a state health care program's investment return and generate much needed money for roads.

Under Webster's plan, the Lawton Chiles Endowment health care program would spend an estimated $500-million to acquire the 78-mile toll road that cuts across the Everglades from Fort Lauderdale to Naples.

Webster said the cash-strapped state could use the $500-million to build roads, which would create jobs and help bolster the economy. The endowment would recoup the $500-million and much more by collecting the tolls over the next 50 years.

"It's like investing in a stock, but in my mind this would be far more stable," said Webster, adding that the endowment's investment portfolio showed a slight loss last year.

The notion of raiding a children's health care program to lay more asphalt took House members by surprise and alarmed advocates for human services.

"It's inconsistent with the creation of the endowment," said Karen Woodall, who lobbies on behalf of the poor and the uninsured. "I think our late governor (Lawton Chiles) would probably roll over several times."

Webster, who is in the final year of a 28-year career in the Legislature, is viewed by his colleagues as an expert on transportation and is a longtime supporter of highway construction. The Orlando area that he has long represented has some of the state's most congested highways.

Webster said he'll amend a priority transportation bill (SB 1978) to include the transaction, which he calls "Florida Investing in Florida." He said Gov. Charlie Crist and the state transportation agency support the idea, but he has not yet discussed it with the House.

Rep Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who oversees transportation spending in the House, said he did not know enough about Webster's proposal.

"Parts of that idea are appealing," Cannon said. "But you'd have to make sure you had awfully strong safeguards for insuring the state's return on investment."

Alligator Alley is considered the most lucrative highway being eyed as a candidate for privatization to generate revenue for the state. An analysis done last year for the state Department of Transportation concluded that the road would be worth $600-million to $1.6-billion if tolls were increased from the current $2.50. DOT announced in March that it would seek proposals from private companies interested in leasing the stretch of highway.

The Chiles endowment, worth about $2.3-billion, was built with proceeds from the state's tobacco settlement in the 1990s. The state has never spent any of the principal and uses some of the generated interest to pay for health care programs for children.

Webster said if the Alley deal gets done, it should preclude for several years the privatization of other candidate toll roads such as the Sunshine Skyway bridge, Pinellas Bayway and the state-owned stretch of the BeachLine Expressway in central Florida.

"We pretty much have to exclude others to make this one work," he said.

Webster briefed reporters on his plan on a day when House and Senate leaders struck a series of deals to settle differences in a new $65-billion budget.

Earlier this week, lawmakers suggested canceling the back-to-school August sales tax holiday. On Thursday, the two budget chairs, Sen. Lisa Carlton and Rep. Ray Sansom, instead agreed to scale it back from 10 to seven days, but consumers would not get a weeklong June tax break on hurricane-related items like batteries and portable radios.

• The Senate agreed with the House to hold the line on the amount of property taxes collected to run public schools next year.

• The House agreed with the Senate to borrow money for a $300-million renewal of the Florida Forever land-buying program.

• Senators also will agree with the House's plan to divert some transportation money for other uses, but the $330-million is half of what the House proposed.

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

Senator wants endowment fund to lease Alligator Alley 04/17/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 23, 2008 3:37pm]
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