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GOP bashes Sink over decisions by Republicans—including Atwater?

Posted Oct 30, 2013 by William March

Updated Oct 30, 2013 at 04:24 PM

Eager to bash a newly declared Democratic U.S. House candidate, the Florida Republican Party is blasting Alex Sink for voting as a Cabinet member in 2008 to borrow money for school improvements.

What the Republicans don’t mention, however, is that Republicans, possibly including Chief Financial Jeff Atwater, then state Senate president, had a lot more to do with borrowing the money than Sink did.

Atwater’s currently running for re-election. Two other Republicans who cast at least one of the same votes the GOP criticizes Sink for are former Attorney General Bill McCollum and former Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson.

In one of at least four news releases attacking Sink within a day after she announced her candidacy for the District 13 House seat vacated by the death of C.W. Bill Young, the GOP said Sink and Charlie Crist, then a Republican and governor, “saddled Florida with $5.2 billion in debt.”

However, the news release singles out only two bond issues totalling about $1.2 billion.

Those were votes in March and June of 2008 to issue bonds—meaning borrow money—for Public Education Capital Outlays. PECO money, used for construction and capital improvements at schools, comes from the state gross receipts tax on utilities. Normally, however, instead of spending the gross receipts tax money as it comes in, the state borrows against expected future proceeds of the tax.

It’s the Legislature that decides how much of the money to spend, how much will be spent as cash and how much to borrow against, said Kurt Wenner, vice president for tax research at Florida TaxWatch, a non-profit, non-partisan fiscal watchdog organization.

“The Legislature decides how much they want to spend and how they want to spend it. They don’t have to bond the money – they could spend it all as cash. But the bonding capacity is going to be greater than the cash available.”

The Florida Cabinet, consisting of the governor, chief financial officer, attorney general and agriculture commissioner, “have to vote to approve the bond issues when the Division of Bond Finance presents them, but the actual spending is decided on by the Legislature, based largely on what the Revenue Estimating Conference decides is available,” he said.

In the March vote, unanimously and with little discussion, the Cabinet approved a plan to borrow $586 million; in June, it approved another $625 million.

The March vote included Crist, Sink, McCollum and Bronson. The June vote, with McCollum and Bronson absent, included only Sink and Crist.

Starting in 2008 when Atwater became state Senate president, he would have had substantial influence over the shape of the state budget, as would then-House Speaker Ran Sansom, R-Destin.

The previous state Senate president was Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie; Marco Rubio was House speaker from 2006-08.

Nonetheless, said Florida GOP spokeswoman Susan Hepworth, it’s Sink, with help from Crist, who was responsible.

“She was chief financial officer,” Hepworth said. “That means she negotiated on the bonds. She voted on whether or not to have Florida borrow money.”