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Critics say powerful state senator is a bully hurting USF | News

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Critics say powerful state senator is a bully hurting USF
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POLK COUNTY, Florida - Despite consensus from students, professors, and many elected leaders that the fledgling USF-Polytechnic campus should remain in the USF system, one local legislator is leading the charge to break it off into an independent university, and his critics blame his ego.

State Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has been leaning on local leaders to support his bid for USF-Poly independence, despite worries that the school doesn't have the resources or name recognition to survive as Florida's 12th university right now.  Students still take classes on Polk St. College's campus while the USF-Poly campus is constructed along I-4 in eastern Lakeland.

"I feel like the train has left the station and the students are on the deck waiting for the next one to come through," said one student at USF-Poly.

It's not just students who are questioning Alexander's efforts. A number of current and former state senators say the split makes no sense.

"I just think we're turning something that was sure fire into something that is very risky," said CPA David Touchton.

Touchton has run the numbers and says Alexander is underestimating costs and overestimating revenues and student projections. On top of that, accreditation problems could mean fewer grants and federal funds.

"The minute their accreditations stops, all federal funds stop. It may be 2015 before we get federal funds again," said Touchton.

"Whether it is one year or five years, it will occur in a reasonable succinct period of time," counters Alexander.

If it takes five years, Polk County will miss out on billions of dollars of funds the university is predicted to generate each year and could derail the county's biggest economic engine ever, which is supposed to create 36,000 new jobs.

Some blame Alexander's desire to leave a lasting legacy like his famous grandfather Ben Hill Griffin and his first cousin, Kathryn Harris.

"It seems to be about legacy and not about the students and the future of the citizens of Florida," said Michael Nacrelli, a student at USF-Poly.

Intimidation and "Checkbook Blackmail"

Alexander, 52, is entering his 10th year in the Florida Senate and 14th year in Tallahassee.  As senate budget chairman, he has more power than almost anyone in Tallahassee. Controlling the state's purse strings, Alexander can use key budget items as leverage over his fellow legislators, and even the governor. This year, Alexander had several earmarks escape Gov. Rick Scott's red pen in a year when almost every other special request was vetoed.

Critics of Alexander say he's used his power to terrorize Tallahassee through intimidation and "checkbook blackmail."  Many point to an incident this spring when the senator disagreed with members of the Citrus Commission.  He then crafted a bill - and pushed it into law - to replace half the members immediately.

He's also lobbied heavily for controversial bills that he stood to benefit from. He helped pass controversial SunRail legislation even though it included a $641 million payout to CSX, a company that Alexander does business with through his distribution company, Phoenix Industries.

He helped kill proposed immigration legislation that would have penalized farm-owners, like himself, for hiring illegal immigrants.

And he spent years crafting plans for the Heartland Parkway, a proposed highway through the center of the state that would be built right through the middle of land his family owns in Highlands County.

"We've gone and asked several times for written opinions to assure my district is represented and not being sidelined by the political innuendo that is inaccurate," said Senator Alexander. 

Alexander also helped craft legislation to boost charter schools, which are prevalent in his hometown of Lake Wales, but public schools were left on the hook.

"It's his way or no way," said Frank O'Reilly, former mayor of Lakeland and now a Polk County School Board member.

"He's looking out for the interests of J.D. Alexander first and if there's anything left over, he will look out for the interests of our public school teachers, our public employees, and our public school students. He's hurt a lot of good people," said O'Reilly.

With one year left before he's term-limited out of the Senate, Alexander still has time to build his legacy. But critics, like O'Reilly, say he's already left a lasting legacy of hurting his constituents and all Floridians.

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