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Transportation Advocates Push Crist for a Veto

With lawmakers having completed their work for the 2010 session, the eyes of most of official Tallahassee have now turned to newly-independent Gov. Charlie Crist, whose veto pen looms larger this year than it has at any time in his tenure as governor.

One group watching closely is transportation advocates, who were unable to put the brakes on lawmakers dipping into the state Transportation Trust Fund to balance the 2010 budget. The final sweep of the trust fund, which pays for road projects with revenue collected from gas taxes, will be between $120 and $160 million, depending on federal money the state anticipates.

But Florida Transportation Builders Association president Bob Burleson said he is urging Crist to zero it out.

“Certainly we have hope that’s one of the things he might veto,” Burleson told the News Service of Florida. “Nobody really knows at this point if he’ll veto any of the budget - maybe all of the budget - but I know that the governor does not like the raiding of the trust fund.”

Transportation advocates successfully urged lawmakers to whittle the sweep from $480 million, which was the amount originally proposed by the House. But Burleson said that he would not consider the decrease a victory unless Crist wields his veto pen.

“I wouldn’t even call having no money taken a victory,” he said. “I think that would be holding our own. The only thing we can consider a victory was if we got additional money for transportation, which is desperately needed; $160 million to me is a not a partial victory. Now I would consider getting down to zero a victory, but I wouldn’t have at the beginning of session.”

Burleson said he has met with representatives of the governor’s office to discuss his concerns about the trust fund sweep, which FTBA called a “job killer” repeatedly during session. The discussions were encouraging, he said, but not definitive.

“We’ve got an indication that he’s considering it,” he said. “They haven’t said that’s going to happen or anything like that. There are a lot of things that he’s considering. We have met and talked to him about it, but…he’s pretty good at keeping his cards close to his vest. I know he understands our issue.”

Burleson said he told Crist’s staff that with lawmakers having stashed away a healthy reserve, the governor could veto the Transportation Trust Fund sweep without overturning the entire state budget.

“He understands that even without the FMAP money, there’s about $400 million more in revenue than appropriations,” he said. “He could veto our language and there’d still be a balanced budget.”

Floridians for Better Transportation president Doug Callaway agreed a veto of the trust fund sweep was a possibility. Callaway said his organization was encouraging its members to call and E-mail Crist’s office and is conducting an online veto petition.

“We’re obviously working under the assumption in this year, with this political environment, you can’t really predict what’s going to happen,” he said. “But we think it deserves a veto. We’ve been asking the governor to veto that and we’ve generated hundreds of thousands of phone calls, E-mails and faxes.”

The strategy is similar to a successful campaign waged by the state’s teachers union against a controversial teacher pay bill that Crist ultimately vetoed, citing correspondence received by his office.

Now that the governor has officially severed ties with the Republican Party, which controls both chambers in the Legislature, the Transportation Trust may provide an avenue for Crist to brandish his new-found independence. Florida law provides governors with a line item veto, so Crist is free to comb the more than $70 million spending plan and cherry-pick items to deep six.

And former state Senate Democratic Leader Steve Geller said that vetoing the sweep of the Transportation Trust Fund could boost Crist’s campaign for U.S. Senate even more than other high-profiles vetoes of more controversial measures that could be overturned in the coming days and weeks, said.

“If he vetoes the abortion bill (HB 1143), he’ll make some people happy and some people really unhappy,” Geller said. “There’s risk to that. If he vetoes (the trust fund sweep), there’s a lot of upside and very little downside. One of the biggest and most active political groups in the state is the road builder lobby. If the governor vetoes the sweep, how many jobs are going to be lost in the state? Probably none. If he signs it and they cut the construction money, then a lot of people who currently work for contractors are going to lose their jobs.”

Geller said that Crist could tout saving the state transportation and also possibly highlight any federal money that it may attract.

“I presume the governor gets political mileage by saying ‘I vetoed this and by doing so, I saved 12,000 jobs in the state of Florida,’” he said. “He also gets to say ‘I brought billions of dollars in matching funds to Florida, so business lobby, you should be happy too.’”

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