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Chiles slices $96.2-million from budget

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Gov. Lawton Chiles, who loves to hunt live turkeys in the woods, shot down nearly $100-million of the budget-variety birds Wednesday.

While the $96.2-million in budget vetoes neared the governor's personal best, Republicans who control the Legislature were all smiles. Given the attention and criticism heaped on the special interest projects crammed into the 1998-99 state budget, many legislators had expected Chiles to veto more than he did.

"Under $100-million seems pretty normal," said House Speaker Daniel Webster of Orlando.

Webster and Senate President Toni Jennings said they saw no cuts that warrant an attempt to override a veto with a three-fifths vote of each chamber. Legislators had positioned themselves for such a showdown by getting the budget to the governor unusually early and forcing him to announce his vetoes before the end of the regular session, which is scheduled for Friday.

Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike already were talking of other ways to spend the money Chiles cut from the budget.

House Democrats said they want to see the money invested in education, including providing nurses in every school and creating more room for prekindergarten students. But Webster said he intends to earmark it for more tax cuts.

Among the projects Chiles shot down: $300,000 for fiber optic wiring for a Dade County tennis center, $200,000 for sidewalks and parking at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, $300,000 for a Temple Terrace community center and $125,000 for a new dock at Dog Island in North Florida.

In many cases, Chiles noted that the projects were paid for from an inappropriate source, did not undergo the necessary review or appeared to favor one private vendor over another.

The governor also paid particular attention to charter schools, the experimental public schools that are privately operated and largely free from state bureaucracy. Chiles vetoed $5-million earmarked for construction of charter schools and $2.2-million for a charter middle school at a Broward County museum.

"It is unwise to commit public funds for capital construction of these schools until their performance has been subjected to an evaluation that is sensitive toward their immediate impact and long-term growth," the governor wrote more than once.

The vetoes sliced a tiny portion from the $45.3-billion state budget _ the last one that Chiles will sign as he ends his 40-year political career.

In fact, Chiles had plenty of nice things to say about the budget, noting that it extends subsidized health insurance to more than 200,000 additional children and provides for an overall 7 percent increase in public school spending.

But the governor also noted several deficiencies, including too little money for need-based financial assistance for college students, children's school readiness programs, mental health and substance abuse services, and the Safe Schools program that pays for school resource officers and after-school activities.

Chiles pointed out that there was plenty of money generated by the booming economy and the tobacco settlement to better address those needs. In fact, he said, the legislators left $350-million unspent after sending him the budget.

While the governor acknowledged that some of that money will cover the cost of tax breaks and other projects, "there are enough funds to have maintained greater discipline in the budget."

Chiles' vetoes do not come close to meeting the recommendations by Florida TaxWatch, the nonprofit organization that wanted Chiles to veto more than $300-million in budget turkeys. The vetoes also fall just short of his personal best: $103-million in vetoes in 1995.

But that didn't satisfy some legislators who lost projects.

As the list of vetoes was passed out in the Senate, Sen. Ron Silver of North Miami Beach started fuming about some $11-million in Dade County projects that were vetoed.

"Maybe we'll discuss them tomorrow when we're fresh," Jennings suggested.

Silver, a Democrat, retorted: "I'd like to discuss them with the governor right now."

Chiles did not appear to target Republican projects more than those sought by Silver and other Democrats. However, he did not seem to touch many projects sponsored by black Democrats who already are angry about the ouster of Rep. Willie Logan as the House Democrats' incoming leader.

April Herrle, the governor's spokeswoman, said Chiles considered the merit of the projects as well as the way in which they were reviewed and funded.

"If it's $100,000 or $2-million, the venom is the same," she said. "To say that legislators are unhappy would be an understatement."

_ Staff writers Diane Rado, Lucy Morgan, Adam C. Smith and Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.