State may lose millions in aid


Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 12:40 a.m.
TALLAHASSEE - Florida may refuse millions in federal aid that could be used for everything from helping feed the poor to informing women about the dangers of heart disease and stroke.
Other federal grants in jeopardy include money that the federal government had agreed to send to Florida to pay for cleaning up underground gasoline tanks and for building a $300,000 facility in Gainesville to battle fire ants.
The reason that the Sunshine State could lose the money is that the new Republican leaders of the Florida House are now saying the process used to let state agencies spend federal grants in the middle of the state budget year may be unconstitutional.
This sudden change of attitude among House leaders drew sharp criticism from both Senate Democrats and Republicans and confounded Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson, who said other states would be willing to spend money that Florida sends back to Washington.
"We are playing games with the lives of women," complained state Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa. "Let's quit playing games up here and playing politics."
The dispute over federal grants arose at a monthly meeting of the Legislative Budget Commission, a 14-member panel of state lawmakers that was created two years ago by legislators.
The commission has the power to make changes to the state budget, adopted during the annual legislative session. But the governor must approve the changes, and the commission can't agree to fund items vetoed by the governor or items turned down by lawmakers during the regular session.
On rare occasions, the commission has agreed to dip into state reserves, but most of the time it gives agencies the authority to spend federal money. Many agencies receive grants during times of the year when the full Legislature - which meets annually for two months - is not in session. Before the commission was created, it took a decision by just four legislative leaders - usually reached behind closed doors - to approve a change in the budget.
But Rep. Bruce Kyle, R-Fort Myers, the new House Appropriations chairman, contended that state agencies should ask for approval to spend grants during the regular session when the entire Legislature could vote on it.
"It's best to let them wait for both chambers," said Kyle, who added that it should not be the job of the commission "to rubber stamp" spending requests from state agencies.
The problem, however, is that if the state waits too long to try to spend grant money, it could revert back to the federal government.
"For us to turn back this federal money is clearly not in the best interests of the state," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie.
Despite those fears, however, Kyle and other House members on the Legislative Budget Commission raised questions about federal grants that had been awarded to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Health and the Department of Environmental Protection.
Final decisions on several grants were postponed a month, while five out of the seven House members actually voted down a request from the Department of Health to spend nearly $1 million in grant money from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The money was to be used to collect data as well as pay for a campaign to alert women on the dangers of heart disease and stroke.
The action on Wednesday also left in limbo nearly $300,000 the state had received to battle fire ants, including money to establish a facility in Gainesville for the program. The decision also means Florida won't have an extra $1.14 million for an emergency food program or nearly $764,000 to pay for cleaning up leaking underground storage tanks.
House members also appeared ready to reject $6.5 million in federal aid the state received to help train state and local governments on how to deal with weapons of mass destruction. But they changed their minds after Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, chairman of the Senate Home Defense, Public Security and Ports Committee, said they should not delay training for local officials.
"We are talking about weapons of mass destruction," Dockery said loudly, to make sure that House members were listening.

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