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Tough times test Pasco lawmaker's priorities

The baby isn't here yet and already the dad-to-be worries about paying for the education. In this case, papa is Rep. John Legg, R-New Port Richey, who, while visiting with journalists at mid-week, kept the wireless within reach in the event labor started on what was nine months and day one of the family pregnancy.

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But Legg's worries about school weren't the typical pre-pay plan/college trust fund scenario common to other doting dads. He sits on the House Schools and Learning Council and is vice chair of the House Committee on K-12. His education concerns are more global at the moment.

Tuesday, he and 159 other representatives and senators convene in Tallahassee for the start of the 2008 legislative session and one of the first tasks at hand is watching the state try balance the books for the final four months of the current fiscal year while writing a spending plan for the coming year that will be down $3-billion. Against that backdrop, the state court system is threatening to shut down, social service and health care spending will get whacked and the class-size amendment isn't implemented fully.

"It's not fun,'' said Legg.

He wants to hold education harmless. That's government speak for: No cuts in school funding. Then again, don't be thinking about sizable increases either. He also doesn't want to cut transportation spending. The needs for highway miles in Pasco County is too great. Anyone who sits in a car on U.S. 19 at Ridge Road or tries to go west on State Road 54 though Wesley Chapel or waits mornings on southbound U.S. 41 in Land O' Lakes can concur.

Legg the legislator and the almost-new dad also is Legg the teacher and school administrator. He switches to the visual aids and admits his Republican conservative chagrin at the numbers on the chart. In the mid 1990s, the state budget was $37.8-billion. Since Republicans took over in Tallahassee, state spending increased to $73.6-billion at the start of the current fiscal year.

"We spent a lot more money,'' said Legg, "Maybe we shouldn't have.''

And in moment of candor, he admits he is not the type of legislator to put in for many so-called member projects — the extra spending that brings bacon back to the district. That is the speciality of his friend and mentor, Sen. Mike Fasano.

This year, figure on $70-billion to spend when the 2009 fiscal year begins July 1. The numbers don't warrant support for Gov. Charlie Crist's budget proposal to pay for things with increased gambling revenues and sweeping trust funds of extra revenue to be allocated on unintended purposes.

"I believe a $70-billion budget is not the sky is falling, let's spend our reserves,'' said Legg.

And, gambling?

"Crack cocaine for legislators and taxpayers … if we spend it, we're just going to want more. We're sacrificing the future for a quick fix of cash.''

It is a bleak financial outlook. So, much of the educator's legislative agenda for the year is revenue neutral. His bills call for allowing single-gender schooling programs that are already being used, changing how districts identify gifted and high-achieving students as a precursor for a better accounting of where districts allocate money for so-called exceptional students, and establishing end-of-course examinations for high school students. This one does come with a $1-million price tag this year.

He is the sponsor of two local bills dealing with building standards and insurance rates for Pasco County and he introduced legislation prohibiting teen-age drivers from talking on cell phones while operating a motor vehicle.

A long-term goal for the guy who grew up in Hudson is to partner with county government to help revitalize the western side of Pasco where he lives and where his Dayspring Academy Charter School is located.

This conversation came two days after a handful of public schools in Port Richey and Bayonet Point went into lockdown because of fears an armed robber was at large.

"Pasco is growing, but urban blight is occurring in west Pasco,'' said Legg. "It's not the same community it was 15 years ago.''

Indeed. Retiree havens are now blue-collar, working-class communities. It is why the Pasco School District is one of just five in the state that increased student enrollment this year.

With a yet another future student set to arrive any day now, if he hasn't already.

Tough times test Pasco lawmaker's priorities 03/01/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2008 3:06pm]

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