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Funding pitches soar, but governor's curveball feared

The buck stops here.

Well, that depends on whether the topic is money or responsibility. If we're talking money, Pasco's legislative delegation is all about free-wheeling dollar dispersal. Got an issue? We'll put it in the budget.

But darn that governor and his veto pen.

That theme emerged Friday morning as the Pasco legislative delegation held its annual meeting in New Port Richey. Money was the most prevalent topic as legislators listened to tens of millions of dollars' worth of budget requests.

The governor has not released his own budget proposal, but economic forecasters predicted in November a $3-billion windfall over the next two years from taxes paid on hurricane rebuilding efforts, housing sales, mortgage refinancings and business investment. About $1.6-billion in new money will be available before the current fiscal year ends June 30, and the 2005-06 budget should include an additional $1.4-billion.

Here's the rundown of the local wish list:

+ $17-million for U.S. 19 improvements.

+ $10-million for a regional reclaimed water project for the northern Tampa Bay region, with the Southwest Florida Water Management District picking up the other half of the $20-million cost.

+ $10-million for education foundation grants statewide, of which $164,000 would come to Pasco.

+ $970,000 for a trio of Alzheimer's programs, including outreach to blacks and Hispanics and statewide training.

+ $600,000 for CARES senior center renovations in Elfers.

+ $500,000 for seed money for a Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Wesley Chapel.

+ $500,000 to buy the site used by Hope Youth Ranch program for teenage girls in foster care.

+ $250,000 for a pilot program to support guardian ad litem representatives for teenagers.

+ $248,264.83 (Yes, they had it down to the penny) for an addition to the Baldomero Lopez State Veterans Nursing Home in Land O'Lakes for therapy and recreation for dementia and Alzheimer's patients.

+ $100,000 for Project Smart, a conflict resolution program for the Boys & Girls Club.

+ $100,000 to transport and warehouse food for the Volunteer Way food bank.

+ $50,000 to renovate the Good Samaritan clinic.

+ An unspecified amount of money for 110 new judges and support staff statewide, including five circuit and six county court judges for Pinellas and Pasco counties.

+ An undetermined amount, down the road, for Seven Springs residents to acquire water and sewer system infrastructure if the PSC carves them out of the Aloha Utilities franchise area.

That's not counting agencies like Operation PAR, the Harbor Behavioral Institute and the Pasco Sheriff's Office child protection services seeking to preserve their current allocations totaling more than $5-million.

Each agency attempted a persuasive pitch.

"This is the first time we've ever asked for state money," Good Samaritan executive director Barbara Holton said after noting the agency logged nearly $2-million worth of donated labor from medical professionals.

Not everyone came looking for cash. New Port Richey Mayor Dan Tipton repeated the city's nearly annual request to make it easier for the city to expand its ambulance services and to grab a bigger share of state library aid.

Nothing else? Nothing at all? No dollars? Sen. Mike Fasano asked.

Hard to believe, but true. Of course, first-time speakers hadn't been clued in.

"I didn't know we could ask you for money," offered Joy Pillion, an advocate for people with mental illness, who was more interested in legislative changes to the Baker Act.

Still, she slipped in a subtle funding pitch anyway. Florida, she said, shouldn't remain 47th of 50 states in per capita spending on mental illness.

Nobody deemed the spending ideas frivolous. Even the notion of a half-million dollars for an agency serving six clients was treated respectfully.

But Fasano, R-New Port Richey, the delegation chairman, issued a frequent warning.

"Convincing the governor is another story," he said.

Yes, Gov. Jeb Bush vetoed appropriations for the CARES Elfers Center and the PHCC Wesley Chapel site from the current state budget, and past vetoes included local appropriations for a Heritage Park Foundation museum in Land O'Lakes and a new school for the New Port Richey Marine Institute.

Legislators didn't cast Bush, their fellow Republican, as a bully or tyrant.

Yet, the message (and political scapegoat) is clear if the locals don't get their wishes in the next state budget:

It's not our fault.