TALLAHASSEE — Tens of millions of dollars for libraries, museums, parks and theaters in the Tampa Bay area have survived the first cut and are in the initial state budget proposals.
Funding for Lowry Park Zoo, the Florida Aquarium, Blind Pass Road in St. Pete Beach, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg and a new transit study to move people from south Hillsborough County to downtown Tampa are all tucked within more than 800 pages of budget documents that passed through House or Senate budget committees this week.
Some of the bigger-ticket items for Tampa Bay are not among the four dozen area projects in the $80 billion budget yet. Like most education construction projects, the fate of a $22 million request to move the University of South Florida's Morsani College of Medicine to downtown Tampa to serve as a key cog of Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik's revitalization plan will not be known for weeks.
While there is no guarantee any listed projects will be in the final state budget, it's a key starting point to keep many of them even at the negotiating table.
House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, said the region is off to a good start. One reason for that early success speaks to powerful players among Tampa Bay lawmakers. In addition to Young, House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and key budget subcommittee chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, all hail from the region.
Getting a project listed in the early going is vital for budget negotiations, even if the amount isn't where lawmakers want it. Young asked for $2 million for the Florida Aquarium to help finish construction of a marine conservation and research facility near Apollo Beach. The House and Senate have lesser amounts in their budgets, but Young said the full amount could still come through.
That's more than can be said for dozens of other projects that were not included in either the House or Senate budget. Renovations to Mahaffey Theater, express bus service from Tampa International Airport to Clearwater Beach, and improvements to a youth sports complex in Clearwater are among those that didn't get a nickel from either chamber.
The House and Senate must agree on an identical budget before it can be sent to the governor for his review. Lawmakers have been more aggressive to get items in the budget early this year in a bid to avoid Gov. Rick Scott's aggressive veto ax. Last year Scott slashed a record $461 million out of the budget, including hundreds of millions in local projects that he said were not fully vetted. Legislators have responded by inserting more projects into the budget earlier with more detailed paperwork to justify them.
Many of those projects are nearly identical to ones Scott vetoed in June. Renovations to the Tampa Theatre, funding for the East County Service Center in Plant City and support for an All Children's Pediatric Research Zone in St. Petersburg are among millions of dollars requested that did not survive Scott's scrutiny in 2015.
Latvala said regardless of last year's vetoes, lawmakers have to fight for projects back home. He pointed to the East Lake Library in Palm Harbor, which he said badly needs $1 million to help renovate the cramped facility.
"We have to do what our communities expect of us," Latvala said.
Another resurrected item is $3 million to bail out a west Pasco County neighborhood that faces up to 15 years of tax assessments. Homeowners in Heritage Lake Estates are stuck reimbursing the county for conservation land that was bought to stop a developer from building an apartment complex that many residents had argued was incompatible with the area. Corcoran said the funding in this year's budget includes $1.5 million Scott vetoed last year.
Corcoran said he's counting on a different result, even though it's essentially the same request.
"I think we are very optimistic," Corcoran said.
Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.