TALLAHASSEE — The University of South Florida will get $10 million in the next budget to launch a pharmacy degree program, but the money comes with a parochial twist.
The pharmacy school won't be located in Tampa near USF's medical school. Instead, it will be based in Polk County, at the university's fledgling polytechnic school — a project near and dear to Polk's most influential politician, the Senate's powerful budget writer, Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales.
An obscure one-sentence amendment tacked onto the bill (SB 838) shifts the program from Tampa to Lakeland, without identifying the city. It says: "A doctor of pharmacy degree program is authorized at the University of South Florida Polytechnic."
"It's a good idea," Alexander said with a wry smile.
Asked if decisions on where to locate education programs should be made by educators instead of politicians, he said: "They can be made by educators. But then they'd have to get it funded."
And therein lies a case study of how the Legislature works: Lawmakers who get to spend billions of the taxpayers' money think it's only fair that they should use their discretion to steer the money to their hometowns.
The sponsor of the pharmacy school bill, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says the program belongs in USF's main campus in Tampa — which is close to, but not in, his district.
"To make it work it really should be in Hillsborough County," Fasano said. "Now it's going to Polk County, and you don't have a medical facility out there."
Fasano says USF officials came to him and asked him to file the bill, and said they wanted it to be in Tampa. But now, the school, eager like all schools to maintain good relations with the senator who controls the public purse, tells a different story.
Kevin Sneed, the pharmacy program's founding dean, said the original plan was to start the program in Tampa, but Lakeland now seems a better fit because the Polk campus is on the receiving end of new public money from the Legislature.
"We just realized that USF Polytechnic has been successful in acquiring money to build a brand-new campus," Sneed said. "We have a grand opportunity with a brand-new campus that has a world-class, world-renowned architect who is developing an absolutely phenomenal campus."
That money, too, was the handiwork of Alexander. In the closing days of the 2009 legislative session he inserted $5 million in the current year's budget for campus construction.
That is not the first time Alexander has promoted a project close to home. In 2007 he pushed for the Heartland Parkway, which would have crossed vast land holdings owned by companies he controlled. The project stalled after Gov. Jeb Bush was replaced by Charlie Crist, with highway officials saying there wasn't enough need for it.
Alexander, considered the quarterback of plans for the USF Lakeland campus, said then that it would not affect his $7 billion toll road plan, but a top state road official said the new Lakeland USF campus could make the highway more feasible and called the campus a "traffic generator.''
The new pharmacy program also means jobs. Pharmacists make up to $100,000 a year, and educators say Florida's existing programs can't keep up with the demand for students. The University of Florida had 2,000 applicants for 275 slots this year.
A Senate analysis of the proposal says demand for pharmacists is expected to grow by 25 percent between 2009 and 2017 as a result of an aging population, scientific advances in pharmacology and coverage of prescription drugs by more health plans. "The total number of pharmacists in Florida is projected to increase from 16,667 in 2009 to 20,795 in 2017,'' the report says.
Fasano is not the only lawmaker leery of a Lakeland-based USF pharmacy program. "We have the medical school in Tampa. Why do we need a pharmacy school in Lakeland?" asked Rep. Ed Homan, R-Tampa, an assistant professor of orthopedics at the USF medical school.
Rep. Bill Heller, D-St. Petersburg, an official at USF's St. Petersburg campus, fervently opposes the idea and says it will siphon high-paying jobs from Tampa Bay. "It really needs to stay near the hospitals," he said.
USF's medical school in Tampa is adjacent to the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, the Moffitt Cancer Center and University Community Hospital.
Some African-American legislators oppose the pharmacy program out of concerns it could overwhelm Florida A&M University's satellite pharmacy program, also based in Tampa.
Rep. Betty Reed, D-Tampa, voted against the bill in a House committee because she was not familiar with how the USF pharmacy program would impact FAMU's, which stands to get $25 million in next year's Senate budget.
Dr. John Scrivens, director of FAMU's pharmacy practice division in Tampa, said the FAMU program puts students in clinical clerkships — essentially internships at drugstores, hospitals and community clinics.
State university system chancellor Frank Brogan said the USF pharmacy program will be a regional opportunity. "The placement of the school, once it is up and established and accredited, is not the most important issue," Brogan said.
USF dean Sneed said the pharmacy program will get under way in the fall of 2011 with 50 students, and it will eventually grow to 300. He said USF still envisions the program to be regional in scope, with students having clinical rotations in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Polk and Manatee counties.
Locating the pharmacy school in Lakeland is basically a done deal, Sneed said. "It has been discussed as a very distinct possibility and a very probable possibility," he said.
Fasano acknowledged the role raw power plays in deciding how universities grow and expand. "Look, the appropriations chairman (Alexander) uses his influence, and it's no different than the president of the Senate," Fasano said. "They're always going to use their influence when they see an issue they would like to address."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.