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Tampa Bay area's legislative rewards small in lean budget year

TALLAHASSEE — Stopping lead-laced toys from being distributed and sold in Florida seemed like "an apple pie bill" to Sen. Charlie Justice. The Senate even passed it.

But the St. Petersburg Democrat's proposal (SB 886) was never even heard in the Republican-controlled House. Skeptics worried about the cost to business and the state.

It's one example why some Tampa Bay lawmakers acknowledge they had a lackluster session. There were scattered successes, but the lean budget sapped opportunities for big wins to show off at home.

And when the state's $3.2-billion revenue drop wasn't an issue, politics was. There wasn't enough oomph to pass bills in part because the Tampa Bay area has no one in the top leadership ranks.

"You know, it's a very hard year," Justice, chairman of the Pinellas County delegation, said of budget cuts. "These are real numbers that affect real families, and it's incredibly frustrating."

Even a bill spurred by the scandal over Pinellas Property Appraiser Jim Smith's controversial land deal with Pinellas County died. The bill (HB 127) would have required independent reviews of county property appraisers' land.

Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, won the House's approval, but Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, couldn't get it moving in the Senate.

And Sens. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, and Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, failed to move the Johnnie B. Byrd Sr. Alzheimer's Center and Research Institute under the University of South Florida. Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Brandon, and the House opposed the measure (SB 1080), pitting Republican against Republican.

Lawmakers did send Gov. Charlie Crist a bill by Justice and Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, meant to improve the My Safe Florida Home program. It adds a no-interest loan program, and Justice said the bill (HB 7103) improves inspector standards and applications.

In a tight year, the area's delegation also won $2-million to help the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority run, and money for a study of rail corridors as part of the state budget. Rep. Rich Glorioso, R-Plant City, pushed through language (SB 682) that could help the Tampa expressway authority lower bonding costs. But he acknowledged big success was as rare as dollars.

The smaller projects that made the budget only emphasized how paltry lawmakers' pickings were.

"If you can be happy with $50,000 in a $66-billion budget, then I guess it does make me happy," said Hooper of money set aside for the Willa Carson health center in Clearwater.

One place did reap wins: Pasco County. Fasano, a budget writer, won his home county $10-million for roads and utilities near schools, and $5-million to recruit jobs, among other successes.

All the funding has to survive Crist's veto process, though.

Fasano, who with Rep. Peter Nehr, R-Tarpon Springs, won more protections for homeowners to fly flags (SB 1378), said it wasn't a down year for him. And given the budget shortfall, he said, the Tampa Bay area did okay.

Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, said, "We've talked a lot the last six years about reducing government. … This was the chance to do it."

On nonmoney matters, however, he again failed to win criminal background checks for online dating sites (HB 411).

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Tampa Bay area's legislative rewards small in lean budget year 05/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, May 5, 2008 2:08pm]
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