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NASA, citrus to get help from federal government

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson is a NASA fan, and not just because many of his constituents are employed in the space industry.

Nelson experienced the shuttle program first-hand. Having served as chairman of a Congressional subcommittee dealing with the exploration of space, Nelson trained with NASA and flew aboard the space shuttle Columbia. His flight came in 1986 and was the last successful mission before the Challenger disaster.

So it is little wonder that, as the Senate adopted the conference report on this year’s version of the Omnibus Appropriations Bill, which delegates federal money to various programs, Nelson was pushing hard for space program backing. And it seemed his fellow lawmakers joined him in his dedication to the American space program. Omnibus, with its report adopted Friday by a vote of 76 to 20, will award NASA about $15 billion.

The money, encouraged by both lawmakers and President George W. Bush, seems a sure sign that government leadership will follow through on post-Columbia promises to find the reason for the crash and return the United States to space.

While the space program is a national issue with a specific impact on Florida, Nelson and fellow Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who is currently recovering from heart surgery, announced appropriations they helped procure for several key Florida issues.

Topping the list of these issues is the state of Florida’s citrus crop. The state’s most well-known, if not most important, crop escaped from frigid winter weather relatively unscathed. But, in recent years, crops have been devastated by the deadly citrus canker disease.

Citrus canker, so named because of the scarring it creates on citrus plants and fruit, is highly contagious, spreading simply by traveling in humans and animals from one plant to another. The Senate has allowed about $34 million to be spent on fighting the disease. About half will be spent to compensate citrus growers for damage, and the other half will be used toward the canker’s eradication.

Also receiving an appropriation was the slumping Florida shrimping business. The Senate allowed for $35 million to be spent as disaster relief funding for Florida shrimpers.

The third statewide issue that received attention from the Senate was the Florida High Speed Rail. Questions surrounding the proposed Tampa–Orlando connector have created heated debate in Tallahassee.

Gov. Jeb Bush has said that with the advent of the multi-billion dollar Amendment 9, there is no money left for the high speed rail. He made that clear by cutting $200 million from transportation in his proposal for this budget year. Proponents of the rail disagree, and the battle has raged while several counties argue that they should be included in railway plans.

The Senate’s conference report chose to provide the Florida High Speed Rail Authority $2.15 million for “corridor planning.”

In the Tampa Bay area, the Senate will award the Southwest Florida Water Management District nearly $8 million for the Tampa Bay Regional Reservoir Project.

A little money will also be sent to USF’s H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center. The center was awarded $600,000 in federal money to continue in its cancer research.