Sixteen funding requests by Pasco and Hernando counties won the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott on Monday, including a high-ticket plan to build a performing arts and convention center in Wesley Chapel.
The arts center at Pasco-Hernando State College was thought to be imperiled after Florida TaxWatch flagged the $10 million spending request two weeks ago, lumping it with the group's annual list of "turkeys" that it says should go unfunded in the state budget.
But that item and $11 million in additional requests by Pasco and Hernando lawmakers were included in Scott's budget, marking a stark turnaround from last year when most of their requests were vetoed by the governor.
A Hernando project was also among the big winners: $3 million for the construction of the Nature Coast education and tourism center near Hernando Beach. County Administrator Len Sossamon touted the project as "a golden opportunity.''
Lawmakers from the two counties cheered the approvals.
"We are very, very pleased with the outcome," Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said.
The state funding for the arts center will serve as a down payment. The project is expected to cost $60 million and take several years, involving allocations from the state, Pasco and Hernando counties, their school districts and the college.
The idea is to expand performing arts in east Pasco while drawing more tourism and conventions. County commissioners could use the space for meetings, and high schools could stage graduations there.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who pushed for the center, said the project is important as east Pasco grows and develops its own identity.
"Obviously we're excited about it," he said. "There's a great need for it in our area."
It didn't hurt that Weatherford backed the funding requests at the same time Scott was seeking re-election. Last year, Pasco didn't get any of its $5 million in requests.
But lawmakers say the real difference this year compared with last was that they worked with Scott months before the legislative session began to prioritize items deemed critical to the area. Projects involving multiple counties and agencies seemed to carry the most weight with Scott.
"It's no secret we had a better working relationship with the governor this year than last year," Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, said. "We were constantly working on education and other issues during the summer, and his office liked to be engaged early to shape the requests to avoid a veto."
One request that Legg said he was "laser-focused" on was $1.5 million to create an aeronautics academy at Sunlake High School in Land O'Lakes.
The appropriation, approved by Scott, comes with another $500,000 annually for operational expenses. The academy has support from the Pasco and Hillsborough school districts, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Tampa International Airport.
"This year, from very early on, we had a lot more discussions with the governor about why we thought these projects were important to our community," Simpson said. "We spent a lot more time speaking with the governor's office, talking about local projects."
Among those Hernando initiatives to win Scott's support was the Nature Coast tourism and education center, which is planned for the Weekiwachee Preserve. Elsewhere in the preserve, the county is planning a 20-acre beach on lakes left behind by a mining operation. Only $3 million was approved of the initial $4 million sought by lawmakers, but that didn't seem to dampen spirits.
"This is a great opportunity to build something that is a great attraction for tourists and also a fabulous location to be utilized by residents of the area and the surrounding areas for swimming, fishing, kayaking and other passive activities,'' Hernando Commissioner Nick Nicholson said.
Additional items approved include $1.2 million for a fire hydrant line in Zephyrhills, $1 million for conservation in the Pithlachascotee-Anclote area in Pasco, $1 million for transitional housing for Metropolitan Ministries, and $1 million for renovations at the former Hacienda Hotel in New Port Richey.
Rich Shopes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6236.