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Florida lawmakers seek billions for local projects

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TALLAHASSEE - Permanent repairs to the hurricane-damaged Sanibel Causeway and efforts to rebuild Lee County's commercial waterfront top nearly $5 billion in budget requests that lawmakers have filed for the 2023 legislative session.

As of Monday morning, House members had submitted 2,165 budget requests seeking $4.65 billion to help fund local projects and programs in the fiscal year that will start July 1.

Senators had filed 1,001 requests totaling $1.64 billion, with many of the Senate proposals overlapping House requests.

Lawmakers will consider the requests as they negotiate a budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year that is likely to exceed $110 billion. Local projects are closely watched, as lawmakers look to bring money home to their communities - and as critics often deride such spending as pork or, in a Tallahassee term, "turkeys." The 60-day legislative session will start on March 7.

The requests include more than $800 million sought by House members from Southwest Florida, which sustained massive damage when Category 4 Hurricane Ian hit in September.

Rep. Adam Botana, R-Bonita Springs, requested $51.67 million for permanent repairs to the Sanibel Causeway and its McGregor Boulevard approach road. The state spent at least $23.3 million for construction repairs and $5.1 million for paving to get the span to Sanibel Island reopened by Oct. 19.

Botana also has proposed spending $50 million to restore Lee County's "working waterfront." The proposal said the rebuilding efforts would help people who lost jobs in fields such as commercial fishing, dock work, seafood storage and restaurants because of the hurricane.

"If the working waterfront is not restored, the industry will struggle to get back to full capacity causing (an) economic burden to Lee County workers and local, state, and national industries," Botana's budget proposal said.

Also on Botana's wish list is $17 million to have sewers in Sanibel meet resiliency requirements, $18 million to renourish Sanibel beaches and dunes, and $25 million to replace the Ian-damaged Fort Myers Beach Town Hall. The city is using a temporary complex south of the town hall building, and the new structure is proposed to withstand increased wind speeds and be elevated to withstand a 16.5-foot storm surge.

After Hurricane Michael devastated parts of Northwest Florida in 2018, lawmakers from the region sought more than $600 million to help with recovery efforts and brace against future storms. The requests landed $220.9 million in the 2019-2020 budget.

While Southwest Florida sustained the heaviest damage from Hurricane Ian, lawmakers in other parts of the state also are seeking money for projects related to resiliency and such things as dune restoration.

As an example, Rep. Cyndi Stevenson, R-Saint Johns, requested $25 million for dune restoration in northeastern St. Johns County. The request said the project would protect private property and help with such things as recreation and tourism.

"The project will protect State Road A1A and Ponte Vedra Blvd., which are the only evacuation routes off the barrier island," the request said.

The largest proposals so far have come from House Majority Leader Michael Grant, a Port Charlotte Republican who is seeking $179 million for a State Road 31 project in Lee County and $93 million for State Road 78 project in Lee County.

The smallest request has been $12,000 by Rep. Robin Bartleman, D-Weston, for the Weston Music Society.

The largest single request in the Senate is for $35 million to add 23,500 square feet to the University of Florida's Music Building, a project that would eliminate the need to rent space for performances and rehearsals.

In requesting the funding, Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, said the music program "has vastly outgrown its open-air, 50-year-old structure." Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, has filed a matching proposal in the House.

Even if lawmakers include the projects and programs in the budget, Gov. Ron DeSantis will have the final say about whether the money is approved because of his line-item veto power.

Last year, lawmakers tucked 1,221 local projects into a $112.1 billion budget they sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis. The governor axed about 360 projects linked to proposals by senators and 325 linked to House members.

Among the 2022 cuts was $35 million for a "sports training and youth tournament complex" in Pasco County that was expected to help cover a new spring-training facility for the Tampa Bay Rays.

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