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Legislature lines incoming governor's nest

Florida's new governor-elect could ride into town after the November election with quite a splash.

While Gov. Lawton Chiles' office said he got just $332,000 in 1990 to set up his new administration and inauguration, the state's new budget gives the next guy a lot more: $2.5-million.

"Boy, that'd be a heck of a party," joked former state Sen. Rick Dantzler of Winter Haven, one of three candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for governor. "In Polk County, we're more used to hot dogs and beer."

Why the big increase?

Some Democrats are suspicious.

With Republican Jeb Bush leading in the polls and easily beating his three Democratic opponents in fund raising, some think the GOP-controlled Legislature is laying the groundwork for a big Bush bash.

"Arrogance can be a dangerous thing," said Michelle Kucera, a spokeswoman for the campaign of Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, currently the Democratic front-runner.

For weeks, the Capitol has been full of signs that many already consider Bush a "shadow governor." He has had weekly meetings with the GOP House speaker-to-be and played an active role in pushing some legislation.

But the Bush campaign said Thursday it had nothing to do with the gigantic "gubernatorial transition assistance" line item in the budget.

"We're not planning anything," Bush campaign spokesman Cory Tilley said. "It would be presumptuous of us to do so."

Tilley said Bush and his aides did not seek anything and did not know about the $2.5-million.

"We don't know what an appropriate figure could be, because it's the farthest thing from our mind."

Asked to explain the line item Thursday, several leading Republican legislators said they were not aware of it.

Republican House Speaker Daniel Webster said not all the money needed to be spent. But he said that a lot of senior state employees will leave their jobs at the end of the Chiles administration, and would receive payouts for vacation time and other benefits. That would come out of the $2.5-million, he said.

But is it politics?

"Not at all," the speaker said.

Rep. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, the man in line to take the gavel from Webster later this year, wondered why Chiles did not block the expenditure along with his other budget vetoes earlier this week.

"The governor signed it," Thrasher said. "If there was a problem, why didn't he veto it?"

The state money is for staff salaries and 10 more positions in the governor's office to assist with the transition. During the period of time around the January inaugural, the new governor must work quickly to organize his staff, appoint top aides and organize the office. Meanwhile, he must plan for the next legislative session, craft policy, learn the legislative process and move into the Governor's Mansion.

Private money generally pays for inaugural festivities, such as bands or food. State money can be used for expenses such as setting up the stage for the governor's speech and preparing the grounds.

When Chiles first took over after the 1990 election, he handed many of the responsibilities to campaign aide Jim Krog, who is now a lobbyist. Chiles succeeded Republican Bob Martinez and also oversaw a considerable exodus of senior staff.

Asked about this year's appropriation of $2.5-million, Krog raised his eyebrows.

"We did it with 300-grand and had plenty," he said.

When Chiles won reelection in 1994, his transition cost the state $250,000, according to his office.

Republicans in the Legislature were adamant that, should Bush win the race, his festivities would be no more posh than those of any Democrat who might win.

Anyway, they said, it's up to voters who gets to spend this jackpot.

Said Thrasher: "What's good for the goose is good for the gander. It could be a Democratic governor, right?"