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Fundraiser comes after favor

A top Republican Party campaign contributor who won a lucrative legislative exemption from hospital expansion rules is hosting a $1,000-a-person fundraiser this weekend so lobbyists can play golf with House Republicans.

The overnight outing opens Friday with cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, two days after the Legislature meets in another special session to debate how to control medical malpractice insurance costs.

Senate Republicans, House Democrats and Republican Gov. Jeb Bush have all criticized House Republicans for collecting money from special interests while they are in session.

The fundraiser's host is Gary Morse, developer of the Villages, a sprawling retirement community south of Ocala with its own bank, radio station, Chamber of Commerce and hospital.

Republican lawmakers championed a change in state law that will permit the Villages Medical Center to triple its capacity without having to undergo the same rigorous and costly review as other hospitals.

Morse is a major player in state and national Republican politics. He has donated nearly $700,000 personally or through businesses to the state Republican Party since 1999 and has donated a corporate jet to the party for use by Bush and other candidates.

Morse gained the elite status of a George W. Bush "pioneer" in 2000 by raising $100,000 and was one of the 25 Florida presidential electors pledged to Bush in the 2000 presidential election.

House Speaker Johnnie Byrd praised Morse Tuesday as "a great supporter of Republican causes." Democrats said the event's timing shows a troubling link between policy and money.

"It's a prime example of our government being for sale for campaign cash," said Rep. Susan Bucher, D-Lantana.

The ban on fundraising during the regular 60-day session does not apply to overtime sessions, the third of which in 2003 begins today. Democratic Rep. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg tried unsuccessfully to extend the ban to cover special sessions, but Republicans blocked the proposal last month.

Byrd defends fundraising while legislators are in session as a form of free speech. Although the fundraiser is billed as a way to honor Byrd, the House speaker's name is being used to lure donors and Byrd won't attend. He's going camping with his son instead. "I hope they raise lots of money," Byrd said.

The legislation that benefited Morse was needed, Byrd said, because the "bureaucratic" approval of hospital beds takes too long in high-growth areas.

Invitations went to hundreds of lobbyists and donors, asking for an entry fee of $5,000 for a foursome and $1,000 for an individual, with higher prices for those seeking to play golf with "certain leadership members."

Proceeds from the outing will benefit Republican House candidates in 2004.

Geoffrey Becker, a Republican Party spokesman, said 20 to 30 House members would take part. He said he didn't know how much the GOP would raise.

The three hosts on the invitations are Byrd, Rep. Allan Bense of Panama City, who would succeed Byrd as speaker in 2004, and Rep. Hugh Gibson of Lady Lake, whose district includes the Villages.

The legislation exempting the Villages Medical Center from a full-scale review first drew attention earlier this year because its sponsors were nowhere near the Villages but were two Pinellas Republicans: Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, and Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg.

The bill passed the House 76-37 and the Senate 27-12. Three Republicans voted against it: Reps. Heather Fiorentino of New Port Richey and Mitch Needelman of Melbourne, and Sen. Lisa Carlton of Sarasota.

Bush voiced reservations about giving one hospital special treatment, but he signed the bill on June 20. A few days later, lobbyists began receiving red, white and blue invitations to spend a golfing weekend at the Villages.

"I'll be working closely with Gary Morse, the Republican Party of Florida and their team to help plan a first-class event," Rep. Gibson wrote on party letterhead June 18, in a note accompanying the invitations. "If I can do anything to make this a more positive experience for you, please give me a call!"