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A gift that makes good sense

President Bush, trying desperately to keep his job, is spreading federal money and projects around like candy. In most cases, like his promise to rebuild Homestead Air Force Base no matter the cost, these are blatantly political decisions.

But the president's weekend gift to the bay area _ a pledge to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration aircraft and crews to MacDill Air Force Base _ makes more than just good political sense.

It means that the MacDill runways will remain open, even after the F-16 fighter wing moves out. Keeping the runways operating was essential to keeping the base's other tenants, U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command. If MacDill's runways had closed, both commands would have been forced to move.

But there is much more to celebrate. In making the pledge to move the weather aircraft here, Bush and Defense Secretary Dick Cheney also pledged to eventually transfer the MacDill airfield to control of the Hillsborough Aviation Authority.

That signals the first step in what we hope can be a smooth transition toward combined military and civilian use of the runways and the base property.

If the Aviation Authority takes over the operation of MacDill, the two commands, along with other government tenants like the NOAA and the 500-member Joint Communications Support Element, would pay fees for use of the runways. At the same time, the authority could place other civilian tenants _ like an aircraft repair operation _ at the base.

George Bean, the authority director, said the transfer is starting to make financial sense. Especially since Bush's announcement that the weather unit was coming to town.

"If the government continues to use the airfield, it makes the whole question of a local government agency takeover feasible," he said.

With the Cold War over, America's military needs to shrink. It is inevitable that many of MacDill's military jobs will go with it. But the base and the runways remain an asset. And this gradual transition to civilian control _ and more civilian jobs _ could be a gift that keeps on giving.