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Groups tell legislators their pricey wish lists

They came asking for wider highways, more vocational training, better school lunches, renovated senior centers, hearing aids for toddlers and sensory therapy machines for Alzheimer's patients.

They wanted state dollars, or new legislation, or a little of both. And for three hours Friday, community leaders poured out their requests to the nine legislators who represent various chunks of Pasco County.

County officials made the biggest request of the day _ $17-million _ to widen the Pasco stretch of U.S. 19 from six to eight lanes. State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said improving the dangerous highway is his top priority, although it may take several years to get funding adding up to $17-million.

Some U.S. 19 improvements are already in the works: Street lights are going up, a more sophisticated traffic signal timing system went in last year, and the county plans to spend $13.3-million from the Penny for Pasco sales tax hike on "channelized" medians that allow turns in only a single direction.

"Pasco County has stepped up to the plate," said Fasano, who chairs the Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee in the Senate. "The state needs to recognize that" by putting money toward the highway.

Pasco school superintendent Heather Fiorentino asked her former legislative colleagues to earmark more money for vocational training, so non-college-bound students can pick up professional skills in middle and high school.

At a separate sit-down with legislators, Pasco-Hernando Community College leaders asked for $500,000 seed money for a new campus in Wesley Chapel. Having watched Gov. Jeb Bush veto that money for the college last year, the delegation members said they would work harder this year to get _ and keep _ the dollars.

Local Republican Party leader Bill Bunting renewed the call for a bill requiring community college students to take a class in American government.

Dr. Rao Musunuru, a cardiologist representing the local chapter of the American Heart Association, made another request: Require public schools to have more exercise programs and more nutritional meals to get students into healthier habits.

Bill Aycrigg, director of Community Aging and Retirement Services Inc., or CARES, renewed his request for $600,000 to expand the Elfers senior center annex. Legislators earmarked $123,000 for the project last year, but Bush vetoed it.

Craig McCart, executive director of the Sertoma Speech and Hearing Foundation, didn't ask for money, exactly _ only a way to raise some.

He wants legislators to add a $1 checkoff box on driver's license renewal forms so people can contribute a dollar to a Sertoma program that provides hearing aids for children.

In perhaps the most unusual request of the day, the Nature Coast Volunteers for Veterans asked for $248,262.83 for a permanent "Snoezelen" room at the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land O'Lakes. Snoezelen is an increasingly common therapy for patients with Alzheimer's, dementia or other illnesses: The room provides soothing lights, sounds and smells that stimulate the senses.

Although there's no guarantee that any of the 27 Pasco groups will get what they want this year, the strong delegation in this area improves their chances. The Pasco delegation includes the Senate president, Tom Lee, as well as the chairmen of two Senate spending committees: Fasano and state Sen. Victor Crist, who heads the justice appropriations committee.

The delegation also includes state representatives Tom Anderson, Gus Bilirakis, Richard Glorioso, John Legg, Ken Littlefield and David Russell. Some chair a committee. All belong to the Republican majority.

"We have a delegation that has an enormous amount of influence and leadership," Fasano said after the meeting at the West Pasco Government Center. "That is going to help Pasco County tremendously on a number of the items brought to us today."

But he said nothing is a lock: "Literally tens of millions of dollars were requested today. We will do our best, but we cannot make any promises."

Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.

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