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Time's running out for Florida lawmakers to revise spending plan and get stimulus dollars

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By Angye Morrison

Lawmakers in Florida have only a couple of weeks to pass a revised spending plan in order to make sure the state can get federal stimulus dollars appropriated by Congress into the hands of local people.

State Senate Ways and Means Chairman J.D. Alexander said last week the Legislature would start drafting budget bills as soon as possible to identify wastewater and road projects in line for stimulus money. Lawmakers must also act soon to plug in federal funds intended to shore up the Medicaid state-federal health insurance program for the poor.

"We want to do this as expeditiously as possible," Alexander said. "I don't want to wait around."

The state is expected to get $1.4 billion in transportation money and an additional $1.3 billion for Medicaid in the coming months – money that can be spent this fiscal year.

Sen. Al Lawson, Senate Democratic leader, complained last week that Gov. Charlie Crist and his administration aren’t moving fast enough to get stimulus dollars to those desperately waiting for them.

Lawson also figuratively shook his index finger at the Florida Department of Transportation, which he says has not moved road projects from the draft stage to the “shovel ready” stage since the projects were first outlined in December 2008. The department had announced that it would release those projects last week.

The senator also called Alexander out, urging him to direct the state Legislative Budget Commission to determine immediately which roads projects will be funded, in the hopes of eliminating any temptation by any of the involved parties to exercise political influence over the decision.

"You and I are far too familiar with the political posturing and machinations that can occur when billions of dollars are at stake and individual lawmakers are deciding where that money is to go," Lawson wrote to Alexander. "Manipulation of those funds for political purposes is much too tempting, and I fear for the little guy when the big guys are calling the shots."