For all the brazenness and hypocrisy of House Speaker Ray Sansom's funneling millions to the college that now employs him, he didn't act alone. Gov. Charlie Crist and other Republican lawmakers have been his enablers. They were complicit in Sansom's use of school construction money as a personal slush fund while he was the House budget chief. Legislators could have challenged the Destin Republican's raids and blocked them. The governor could have vetoed them. Their silence then — and now — points to the sad state of Florida politics where the interests of all Florida taxpayers are too often subjugated for the politically well-connected few.
Not one prominent Republican official has publicly condemned Sansom's actions. He has secured a lucrative, unadvertised administrative job at Northwest Florida State College. He has quietly added millions to college construction projects. He steered school construction dollars to a college building that just happens to include an airplane hangar that could benefit a political contributor. Crist has shrugged off Democrats' call for an investigation. Should taxpayers also assume that House Republicans — including Wesley Chapel's Will Weatherford, who is in line to be speaker in 2012 — condone Sansom's behavior? Have other Republican lawmakers in the Tampa Bay area lost their voices?
The money Sansom so cavalierly threw to his local college comes from a gross receipts tax collected on every bill for telephone and television service, be it wireless or land line, cable or satellite. Each year the state's education department proposes how to spend the Public Education Capital Outlay fund to meet the needs of schools, community colleges and state universities. The so-called PECO list has always been ripe for political tampering. Nearly every leader of the Legislature has accelerated or redirected money at some point to help their hometowns.
But as a story in Sunday's Times by staff writer Alex Leary showed, Sansom's abuse of the system while House budget chief reflects a breathtaking hypocrisy by the man who preached humility and fiscal restraint. In 2007, without any public review, Sansom earmarked $6-million on the PECO list for an airport building that political contributor and jet service owner Jay Odom had been lobbying local officials to build. Odom had pitched the building as an emergency facility he would use for his planes, except during natural disasters when it would be turned over to emergency officials. Last week, Odom said he didn't plan to use the facility, which will now include college classrooms. But the manager of his airport operation said that was still the plan.
Sansom, a former Okaloosa County commissioner, claimed he pursued the project without Odom's influence, saying it was needed to create a safe staging area for emergency officials during a hurricane. Problem is, state e-mail records show that college president Bob Richburg, Sansom and Odom were in contact about the airport project. They can't even get their stories straight.
The same year Sansom squirreled away $6-million for the airplane hangar, he tacked another $3-million onto a $13.6-million PECO project to build a college basketball arena. This spring, as he was telling other House members there was no money for any local projects in 2008-09, Sansom added $24.5-million to a $1-million line item on the PECO list for the college. He also found another $750,000 to launch a "leadership institute" at the college.
As the state faces its worst budget crisis in decades and with state leaders ready to cut more services, Sansom has lost the credibility needed to be a good steward of taxpayers' hard-earned money. In their silence, Crist and his fellow Republicans in the Legislature are saying volumes. They are condoning this abuse of power that has deprived other deserving education projects of funding and resulted in personal gain for the speaker. If they disagree with that assessment, they need to speak up.