And now it's time for another installment of What's Up With Ric?™, our attempt to keep you up to date on the comings and goings of Orlando's favorite Republican, U.S. Rep. Ric Keller!

This week's episode finds Ric up in Washington, D.C., voting for budget cuts on non-necessities like health programs, education and Medicaid. Who needs that crap?

The action took place Nov. 17 and Nov. 18, when a gaggle of Ric's fellow Republicans decided it was high time the feds stopped spending like drunken sailors. "Let's get serious about fiscal restraint," these tough-minded conservatives said, "let's tighten our belts." And so they devised a measure that would lop some $142.5 billion off the budget. The cuts were to come from many places, including reduced agricultural subsidy payments, eliminating $8 billion to prepare for a bird flu epidemic, reducing Medicaid coverage, slashing student loans and freezing Pell Grants.

Our man Ric voted "yea." But oddly enough, 22 Republicans broke rank and voted "nay," saying in essence that taking from those with the least, and using Hurricane Katrina to justify it, was more than even they could stand. The measure failed.

But the Republicans came back with a $50 billion cost-cutting bill that squeaked by with two votes to spare. Our Ric, never one to make waves, once again went along with watered-down cuts. (If he hadn't, the vote would have been a tie: food for thought.)

Meanwhile, back at Ric's home office, 11 people organized by MoveOn.org staged a demonstration to protest Ric's love of budget cuts. Sarah Cornett, a mother of two who lost her job, was among them. Cornett's 1-year-old son has a condition called familial male precocious puberty, meaning he started puberty at 18 months old. The drugs to prevent him from becoming fully sexually mature by 5 cost $2,000 a month. Medicaid was picking up the tab after both Cornett and her husband lost their jobs and their private insurance. Thanks in part to Ric's vote, that may no longer be the case (we say "may" because the measure still faces Senate approval).

"When you think of government assistance, you think of people in government housing who do nothing all day," Cornett says. "That's the stereotype. But people with four-year degrees count on these programs to get through the rough patches."

Thanks for making America a better place, Ric!

It's been another dark week over at the Orlando Sentinel. Two weeks ago we reported that circulation at the daily plummeted 11 percent over the same period a year ago. Now comes word that heads are about to roll.

Sentinel publisher Kathy Waltz announced impending layoffs in what has to be the coldest specimen of corporate doublespeak this wildly popular column has ever encountered. Her memo to employees says, in essence, that the Sentinel is making bucketloads of cash, but bucketloads will not suffice; it needs to be making trainloads. So some of you folks with your salaries and your benefits and your raises just gotta go. Sorry.

"Our company's goals remain the same – to serve our readers, advertisers and communities, expand our audience and grow revenues," Waltz wrote in an internal memo posted on Jim Romenesko's media gossip forum at Poynter.org. "To accomplish this, we are adjusting our resources – time, people and money – toward our future. After much thought and deliberation, it became clear that it will be necessary to eliminate a limited number of positions, some of which are open positions."

Waltz goes on to detail how the Sentinel is going to redesign section A, "re-think" their news feature strategy, and "refine" the business news section. Just a guess here, but we're doubting any of the above changes will result in more resources dedicated to producing quality investigative journalism. In fact, nowhere in Waltz' memo does the word "journalism" even appear.

When you look at the numbers, it's easy to see why the Sentinel has to run a leaner operation. In the third quarter of 2005, the Tribune Corp.'s publishing arm, of which the Sentinel is a part, only made $169.7 million in operating profits, up an embarrassingly small $38 million from the third quarter of 2004, according to the company's own corporate reports. And with operating profits only at $585.9 million for the publishing division so far this year – up $93.6 million from the same time last year, by the way – it's only reasonable to expect that some poor schlubs at the Sentinel must fall on their swords. It's the only way.

Don't look now, but the city's plan for its public-works trifecta – the TD Waterhouse arena, a new Citrus Bowl and a performing arts center – has hit another snag. First the University of Central Florida took its ball and went home; then former mayor Bill Frederick jumped ship. Now it looks like Orange County is getting nervous.

On Nov. 15, the county's representatives in the downtown deals sent a memo to Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty with a list of questions. They want to know what the projects are going to look like, and how much they are going to cost – as do we all.

It seems the county hasn't a clue about what's going on. "We're constantly dealing with a lack of specifics," says county spokesman Steve Triggs. All they know is that, at some point next year, the city's going to want dollars, and lots of them.

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer knows he'd be pilloried if he raised property taxes to subsidize these projects; Orlando's quest for a performing arts center has never been popular, and the Orlando Magic's demands for a new arena have been met with a public reaction just short of outrage. So the only way to sell the deals is to convince voters that, while tax dollars are needed, it won't be their tax dollars. Enter the tourist-development tax, a tax on hotel beds that can only be spent on things that promote tourism. And the county controls the purse strings.

The city thinks Crotty already committed at least some tourist-development money to the projects in a Sept. 16 letter. What Crotty actually wrote is that he is "committed to consider funding assistance." Not exactly a promise you can take to the bank.

When the guys who are supposed to be paying the bill for these enormous projects have to start asking what's going on, you can read that as a sign of trouble.

On a much gayer note, a representative of this exceedingly popular column was asked to be a costume judge at the Rainbow Democrat Club's "Emerald City Extravaganza" fund-raiser Nov. 17 at The Parliament House. The representative in question claims no allegiance to homosexuality, but this is Orlando and we're all at least little gay, aren't we?

Anyway, the whole Wizard of Oz contest theme was superfluous. It was the stand-up comedy provided by Michael Wanzie and others that provided the comic relief.

Wanzie led off with a rant about buying a tuna sandwich at 7-Eleven that was more bread crumbs than tuna – "There's a lot of rage in this world" – but soon enough got into some big-time Bush bashing. Contestant/comedian Beth Bartsch also delivered some colorful commentary, dressed as Glinda the Good Witch and sporting a wand crafted from a shower rod.

But the best came last, when Wanzie and Miss Sammy led the audience in a singalong of a twisted version of "If I Only Had a Brain," featuring unflattering lyrics about our Commander in Chief.

Who says Dems are humor-impaired? The gay ones sure aren't.

This week's report by Jeffrey C. Billlman, Lindy T. Shepherd and Bob Whitby.




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