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Lawmakers plump up pork barrel requests

Gov. Jeb Bush stunned lawmakers last year when he vetoed $313-million worth of "turkeys," local pork barrel projects that make lawmakers look good to the people back home. This year, he once again announced his intention to keep the budget turkey-free.

But state lawmakers aren't exactly rolling over.

All told, House and Senate members are seeking more than $4.4-billion in pork barrel projects, according to documents released Friday on the Florida Legislature's official Web site.

In some cases, more than one lawmaker asked for money for the same project. Still, that number does not include local projects that the governor already included in his budget, projects recommended in the budgets of state agencies or projects vetted through special committees that assess whether a request meets statewide policy objectives.

There's a $780,000 request for a Cuban oral history project. There's a $1.5-million request to promote "long-term dialogue" with five cities in West African countries. Other lawmakers want money for swimming pools, farmers markets, scallop hatcheries, local police athletic leagues or to help build an inline skating park in Clearwater.

Rep. Chris Hart, R-Tampa, wants to give a for-profit company $1-million to "commercialize a state of the art window-film" that he says will reduce energy costs and promote the development of a "Florida-based electrochromatic" industry.

Bush has said he wants a budget "free of special interest projects that have plagued Florida's spending plans for many years."

To that end, Bush worked with the Legislature to set up committees to screen hometown projects. Comprising representatives of the House, Senate and the governor, the committees looked at the state's needs in the areas of juvenile justice and water. The idea was to ensure that money was spent according to state policy objectives, not just because a local lawmaker was particularly powerful.

Based on those committees and his own agencies' requests, the governor wound up including $376-million worth of local projects requested by House members in the $49-billion proposal he released last month. (Figures for the Senate were not available.) The projects chosen by Bush for inclusion in his budget came from a mix of House members from both sides of the aisle.

Still, of the 10 lawmakers who got the most money into the governor's budget, eight were Republican. One was state Rep. Rudy Bradley, R-St. Petersburg, who managed to get $10-million in the governor's budget. Bradley switched parties last year to become only the second black Republican legislator in Florida since Reconstruction.

Such projects likely will be veto-proof because Bush or one of the committees has already signed off. But what of the $4.4-billion in requests that don't fall into those categories?

Bush's budget director Donna Arduin said the committees' work is not yet done. They next will consider health and human service projects. The House and Senate will decide which of the requested projects to include in their budgets during the 60-day session that begins in March.

The hope is that if the governor and the Legislature work together at the beginning of the budget process, there won't be a need for the governor to slash so much at the end.

"We are cooperating with the Legislature to develop standards for these projects," Arduin said.

"This is just like any other Christmas list," said Steve MacNamara, chief of staff to House Speaker John Thrasher. "Everyone feels like they've been good and their constituents have been good. They know Santa's bag can't hold everything, but they have an obligation to ask."

Lawmakers from the five-county Tampa Bay area have a lot to gain _ or lose. They submitted requests totaling $602,157,434, or 13.6 percent of the total amount that does not fall into the more veto-proof categories.

Sen. Jim Sebesta, R-St. Petersburg, is asking for $3-million for the Florida International Museum _ though Bush vetoed the amount last year. Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, wants $6.8-million more for various projects at the Florida Holocaust Museum in downtown St. Petersburg. Sebesta requested $10-million for financially troubled Tampa General Hospital.

In Tampa, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, wants $21-million for a new neurosciences clinic at the University of South Florida. Lawmakers also want $2.4-million for underpasses at both ends of the Friendship Trail Bridge. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, requested $200,000 to build a inline skating park there.

But they don't even come close to other lawmakers' requests.

Heading the list is Sen. Howard Forman, D-Hollywood, with a $250-million in requests, including $150-million for a social services program. Next comes Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, with more than $246-million in requests. Third in line is Sen. W.D. Childers, R-Pensacola, with more than $161-million in requests.

Several Democrats requested nearly $82-million to hire 10,000 new teachers and to increase teacher pay. The lowest of all lawmakers was Rep. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon, who requested $170,968 for local projects.

Childers, R-Pensacola, is the chairman of one of the most powerful budget subcommittees and an outspoken opponent last year of Bush's decision to veto so many local projects.