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Messing with success

The Legislature was smart to create the Center for Urban Transportation Research a decade ago. Since then, the center has found cost-effective ways for Florida to solve many of its transportation problems.

Why, then, does House Speaker Daniel Webster feel compelled, in the closing days of this legislative session, to monkey with success?

Webster proposes to cut state funding for the institute and to curtail its research mission. Both ideas are short-sighted. State agencies, local governments and the private sector would lose an objective source of valuable information. The reform value of Webster's plan _ to the budget, and to the state bureaucracy _ is nil. Political fiefdoms would once again control state transportation policy.

Cutter, as the institute is called, belongs in the transportation budget, not education's. The center exists to bring economic development, safety and environmental concerns into a broader framework for transportation policy _ not to teach undergraduates.

Its $1.5-million annual subsidy from the state's roads-and-bridges fund is leveraged several times over with money from other sources. Its budget pales in comparison to the billions spent by local, state and federal governments on Florida's transportation needs. If anything, Florida should spend more upfront to shape the massive public investment in roads and public transit.

Webster said the institute, which is housed on the University of South Florida's Tampa campus, should take a more academic role. But that would dilute its purpose as a research institute. (Many others have existed for years in affiliation with Florida's universities.) It also would divide the focus and resources of the institute's staff and weaken Cutter's exposure off-campus.

If Webster merely had reorganization in mind, he would have included money for Cutter in the education budget. He would have given USF a year to develop a curriculum, hire instructors and submit a budget for academic programs to the university chancellor. None of that happened. Now staff members face layoffs July 1.

With so many good projects to its credit _ from child safety, to economic development, to reducing the cost of public transit _ Cutter should have no shortage of lawmakers willing to defend its record. The question is whether legislators have the political courage to stop the House speaker from forcing his pet project into law. If need be, the Senate should guarantee that Cutter _ rather than being made a pawn for no clear or convincing reason _ is recognized and protected as a model of responsible government.

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