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School proposal got easy approval

Most legislative studies gather dust on a shelf. Not this one.

This study turned into an unstoppable political force that is more controversial than ever: the nation's first public chiropractic college, proposed at Florida State University.

Largely because of the influence of the chiropractors' lobby and lawmakers with FSU connections, the school got $9-million a year in public money with virtually no public scrutiny or debate.

Nobody testified for or against it last February, the only time senators discussed the proposal in detail. The Legislature's health care committees never debated it.

"Someone should be here, making an explanation," Sen. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, said at the Senate hearing.

"Our duty is to appropriate the money, based on the merits," said Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, who sponsored the bill that included the $9-million annual expenditure. "We have a study that's a meritorious study."

FSU did not initially ask for the money. Gov. Jeb Bush, who once vetoed money for the chiropractic school as unnecessary, said he supported it last year to end a feud between legislative leaders.

The chiropractic school is now the centerpiece of a broader debate over whether politics trumps policy at Florida's universities. A lawsuit by a group of educators challenges the Legislature's power to allocate $9-million to the school every year indefinitely.

Neither FSU's trustees nor the Board of Governors, which is supposed to set higher education policy, have approved the chiropractic school. A group of doctors, some of them opponents of chiropractic medicine with strong FSU ties, are trying to defeat the project, saying it was never openly debated in the Legislature.

The latest analysis of the project, done last month by the Board of Governors' staff, raises more questions than it answers. The report found a "growing acceptance" of chiropractic medicine, but said Florida has more chiropractors per population than the national average and needs just 108 new chiropractors a year.

Jones criticized the latter conclusion, saying the Board of Governors relied on outdated population figures.

How the chiropractic college came to be is a vivid example of how the Florida Legislature operates.

The initial pledge of public money came in 1996. The state matched private donations from the Florida Chiropractic Association and the Lincoln Chiropractic College to create an endowed chair at FSU in research in biomechanics and chiropractic.

A 1999 study gave the project an air of legitimacy, even though it did not recommend the college and questioned the need for more chiropractors in Florida, based on their number in comparison with the state's population.

The study, which listed a publicly funded chiropractic school as one of four options, was commissioned by the Legislature and written by Linda Rackleff, a planner at the defunct Board of Regents.

An implementation plan followed. Along the way, a Pinellas lawmaker and chiropractor, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, quietly persisted, as did the chiropractic lobby.

Then fate intervened.

Two men, both fervent FSU alumni, became House speaker (John Thrasher) and Senate president (Jim King) at different times, giving them the power to steer public money to an alma mater.

Nothing could stop it.

"Where's the bill? Where's the study? Where's the whole discussion we usually go through in this process?" asked Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, in a Senate floor debate last March 3.

"We've talked about this for three or four years that I know of," Peaden said. "Other than being required to be presented before an appropriations committee, I think that's maybe all the prerequisites you need for the chiropractic school."

In that debate, Jones gave the estimated cost of bringing the school to completion: $67-million.

Jones, one of the project's biggest boosters, said a public chiropractic school in Florida will spur more blacks and Hispanics to enter the field. Contrary to complaints of critics, Jones said, the proposed college has been "over-debated."

The real origin of the project can be found on Page 55 of the spending plan the Legislature passed for the 2000-01 budget year. Lawmakers allocated $1-million to implement the plan, and FSU hired MGT of America Inc. to write it.

"Did I talk to members back then, to lobby for that? Yes, I did," said veteran lobbyist Guy Spearman, who represents the Florida Chiropractic Association. With a hearty laugh, Spearman, an FSU graduate and an avid Seminole football fan, added: "You can guess which university I was pushing for."

Florida TaxWatch, a private group that monitors state spending, included the $1-million on its 2000 "Turkey Watch" list, and urged Bush to veto it.

"Not requested by BOR (Board of Regents)," TaxWatch wrote. "Would be only public chiropractic school in the country. Private school is considering establishing in FL."

Bush approved it anyway.

With the MGT study in hand, lawmakers appropriated $1-million the following year to start the school. Then a new snag: Bush vetoed the money, partly because the private Palmer College of Chiropractic was already building a new campus in Port Orange "at no direct cost to the state."

"I do not believe the state should embark on funding a public school of chiropractic medicine," Bush wrote in a veto message of June 15, 2001.

Politics changed Bush's position last year.

Eager to be a peacemaker between the warring Senate President Jim King and House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, Bush supported the $9-million for the chiropractic college, which King, an FSU alumnus, supported, as did King's close friend Jones, who was King's majority leader. Another part of the bill expanded Alzheimer's research, which Byrd wanted.

The bill (SB 2002) also named new research buildings after King, King's late parents and Byrd's late father. It rocketed through the Legislature, with only one hearing in each chamber, and was the first bill the Senate passed in the 2004 session.

Even the Democrats who objected in committee voted for it in the end.

The Senate vote was 39-0, with three Democratic opponents withdrawing their opposition. Two days later, the House followed suit, 113-0. Bush signed the legislation less than a week afterward.

WHY THE RUSH?

The Legislature took no public testimony on the need for a $9-million-a-year chiropractic school at Florida State University. The Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the issue Feb. 19, 2004, during which two Democrats repeatedly questioned why the project was being rushed through along with funding for an Alzheimer's center in Tampa named for former House Speaker Johnnie Byrd's late father.

EXCERPTS:

To hear a portion of this exchange, go to sptimes.com and click on the link attached to this story.

Sen. DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ, D-Weston: "I'm not really understanding why we're taking the unprecedented step of passing legislation with major _ no other way to define them _ with major turkeys, in advance of the allocations that we're normally assigned in the budget process So what we're doing is, we're taking the unprecedented step of building edifices to our own members and their family members when we have programs already in place to support these appropriations? I don't understand why we're taking this step now This is extremely unusual."

Sen. DURELL PEADEN, R-Crestview (the bill sponsor): "This bill addresses some of the dire problems we're going to have in the future. I don't think there's any way to circumvent that The interest we have in the area of Alzheimer's and taking care of seniors, the interest we have in children, the interest we have in research and development as it concerns cancer, we're addressing these problems in a timely manner."

Sen. RON KLEIN, D-Boca Raton: "I've got concerns about why we're taking up major policy issues in an appropriations bill that never had a substantive committee hearing."

PEADEN: "The chiropractic school has been studied, and the need validated, in our state."

KLEIN: "We had a big long multiyear debate on whether to have a medical school at Florida State University and ultimately, after a lot of policy considerations, it was determined by the majority of the Legislature that it was a good idea. I don't remember having any discussion, whether it's a good idea or not, to have a chiropractic school "

WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: "If the Senate president (Jim King) is the one that decided that this is the way it should happen, then maybe someone from the Senate president's office should be behind the podium, telling us why this is necessary. Someone should be here, making an explanation. The rules are the rules. It's just not the answer."

(Long silence)

Sen. DAN WEBSTER, R-Winter Garden (chairman): "Any other questions?"

KLEIN: "Mr. Chairman?"

WEBSTER: "Yes."

KLEIN: "I think we deserve an answer on this. There's no comments here There's nobody here. It's unbelievable. This is $30-million of taxpayer money."

PEADEN: "The MGT plan is in place. FSU has done this study. They've already hired an individual that's already begun the process to implement a program. Our duty is to appropriate the money, based on the merits."

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