As the Florida Legislature faces the highest state budget shortfall ever, Ray Sansom has the lowest personal credibility in memory for a new House speaker. How can a legislator who has the audacity to quietly steer millions to his local college while publicly preaching fiscal conservatism and slashing spending be an effective leader in this economic crisis? How can a legislator who was given a job with a six-figure salary by that college on the same day he was sworn in as speaker face his colleagues?
It looked bad enough when it appeared earlier this month that Sansom was given a $110,000-a-year job at Northwest Florida State College after he steered $200,000 to the college's new leadership institute. The Destin Republican shrugged off the revelation, and now it's easy to see why. He was far more brazen than that.
Times staff writer Alex Leary reports the $200,000 turned out to be a preliminary request for the leadership institute that ballooned into $750,000. But that was just the icing on the cake. Sansom's biggest score — at least the biggest one found so far — turns out to be morphing $1-million for a building project into $25.5-million this spring. That's not making sure the local college gets its slice; that's ensuring it gets the biggest slice at the expense of far larger schools.
To fully appreciate Sansom's raid requires some context. Northwest Florida State College has just 15,000 students compared to Miami-Dade College's 160,000 students. Its enrollment does not rank in the top half of the state's 28 community colleges. Yet in this year's budget it received the single largest public education capital outlay (PECO) award. The college can thank its newest vice president.
Sansom is not the first legislator to control the House budget or become speaker and steer millions to local projects. Both Republicans and Democrats have done it. The T.K. Wetherell Building at Florida State University is not named after Wetherell for his work as FSU's president but for the state money the former House speaker steered toward the school as a powerful legislator. But Sansom's behavior stands out because of his hypocrisy.
Sansom oversaw the state budget that turned out to be the lowest in four years because of declining revenues. Yet the fiscal restraint he repeatedly emphasized on the House floor did not apply to himself behind closed doors. This is the new House speaker who announced there would be no money for local projects next year just as news started leaking out about the money he secured for his college. This is one of the state's most powerful politicians who secured a cushy job for himself as thousands of Floridians are losing their private sector jobs and the unemployment rate has soared to 7 percent.
Now taxpayers are going to trust Sansom to help craft a viable plan to bridge a budget shortfall for 2009-10 that could top $6-billion? Now other legislators are going to follow his direction and tell their school districts and colleges they are going to have cut still deeper when Sansom disregards his own rhetoric?
For Tallahassee insiders, there are a number of other intriguing questions. Did then-House Speaker Marco Rubio know what his chief budget writer was doing? Did top aides keep quiet about Sansom's maneuver to ensure they still would have jobs when he took charge?
Sansom owes Floridians an explanation for the conflict between his words and actions. After all, he's playing with their money.