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Foul odors get worse in legislature

December 12, 1990

The Legislature is like a dead skunk. No matter how bad you think it's going to stink, it stinks even worse.

Few stomachs remain unturned after this week's Herald series about pet projects that give away millions of taxpayer dollars. Although everybody was aware that this stuff goes on, many people had no idea that the pilfering is so flagrant.

It's hard to decide which is more outrageousthe way the money was blown, or the lame excuses now being made by those who blew it. Some of my favorites:

Lottery funds, designated for education, were used to send a bunch of state legislators to Israel as part of an "agricultural research project." Among those who took the free trip were Sen. Gwen Margolis (representing those rolling farmlands of North Miami), and Rep. JackTobin of Margate, where almost all the supermarkets do sell fresh produce.

Margolis apparently was too busy tending her crops to respond to inquiries about the Israel trip, while Tobin insisted that the lottery couldn't have paid for the whole thing. It did.

Last year, the Legislature gave $1 million to fund an "amateur" athletic facility. Instead, the money was sent to the Ladies Professional Golf Association. This year, lawmakers spent another $2 million for a new road to the LPGA's headquarters in Daytona Beach.

Now legislators say the word "amateur" was "inadvertently" added to the funding proposal. They say the grant was meant for the city of Daytona Beach, which needed the funds to help the LPGA move there. Now isn't that better? Three million bucks of "economic development" money for needy professional golferswho said government doesn't have a heart!

Metro Commissioner Sherman Winn campaigned for a $400,000 state grant to something called the American International Exhibition for Travel, a firm that staged tourism-promotion shows. By eerie coincidence, Winn's son Steve just happened to be the Tallahassee lobbyist for that companyand got $52,000 for his work. Months later, the owner of American International disappeared, and so did the state's $400,000.

Sherman Winn now prefers not to discuss the matter. Explained an aide: "He doesn't want to be implicated with something he had nothing to do with."

Guess what, Sherm. You're implicated.

The Beacon Council, guiding light of Dade's business community, hired two lobbyists to pry $150,000 in grant money from the state Legislature. After the funding arrived, the Beacon Council kicked back $15,000 to the lobbyists. The state comptroller's office said that's an improper use of taxpayers' dollars.

The kicker: It was lottery money.

Rep. Luis Rojas of Hialeah weaseled $100,000 for the Hialeah Latin Chamber of Commerce to fund a "productivity improvement center." The chamber used the dough to hire Rojas' former legislative aide, Carlos Manrique.

Rojas insists that the state money spawned new commerce in Hialeah, and he's right: His buddy Manrique later went into business with a company owner he'd met through the grant program. Hey, if you can't help your friends, who can you help?

Wooed by lobbyists, the Legislature gave the Greater Miami Opera almost $1 million. Later, some of the lawmakers who voted for the money asked the opera for free tickets.

One of those, Rep. Susan Guber, saysand this is pricelessit's important for her to attend the shows to make sure taxpayer dollars are being put to good use. Bravo!

To her credit, Guber is one of the few legislators who wants to change things so that "turkey" items aren't so easily sneaked into the appropriations bill. There's not a moment to waste, eitherFlorida is in worse fiscal shape than most had predicted.The crisis is forcing $270 million in emergency cuts next month. Education, social services and law enforcement will suffer.

If the new governor is searching for a popular agenda, he doesn't need to go far. All he's got to do is put his nose in the air and take a whiff of this year's budget.

Beer and pizza for everyone, Mr. Governor June 5, 1987 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Junkets show politics isn a thankless job May 1,1991