Tuesday, December 12, 2017
Politics

State budget stuffed with local projects: USF center, water taxis, and...Bernardo de Galvez?

TALLAHASSEE — The University of South Florida's downtown project, water taxi programs and expansions to Lowry's Park's manatee hospital are among millions of dollars tucked into the $82.4 billion state budget for Tampa Bay that Florida Legislators will vote on Monday.

While the laundry list of projects is shorter than in years past, thanks largely to the Florida House and its leaders' attempt to pass reforms to clamp down on the spending, there is still plenty of local projects sprinkled throughout the budget for lawmakers to celebrate when the go back home.

One of the biggest items in the budget for Tampa Bay is, once again, USF's Morsani College of Medicine. Under the budget plan, USF will get $12 million for the new downtown Tampa medical education and research center, which is a part of the 50-plus acre redevelopment of downtown Tampa. The state has already given about $79 million to the project over the years, including $22.5 million last year. With the latest $12 million, State Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said the project appears on schedule for construction to start this fall.

USF originally requested $17 million for the project, but a spokeswoman for USF said the school will be okay and remain on schedule as long as they can work on the Legislature next year for more funding.

"They should be in good shape," Young said.

Pasco County got $15 million for an Interstate 75 overpass to relieve congestion on State Routes 52 and 54.

Hillsborough Community College won $10 million in construction money for a new Allied Health Center on the Dale Mabry Campus for its nursing, emergency medical services and respiratory care programs. And St. Petersburg College will get $6.5 million for its new Student Success Center at the Gibbs Campus.

The region's push for water taxis will also get a boost under the budget. Last week, the House and Senate appeared to strike a deal to send $400,000 to Forward Pinellas for its water taxi work. But when the budget printed out late Friday, State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, announced $1 million would go toward the taxis.

A similar thing happened to funding for structural improvements for the Cuban Club in Ybor City. Originally the House and Senate haggled over whether to send $200,000 or nothing for the work. But when the budget emerged after closed door secret meetings, $1 million had been set aside for the project.

Despite those mysterious budget maneuvers, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, touted this year's process as the most transparent in years. He instituted reforms this year to assure every project had paperwork filed to explain what it did and who was sponsoring it, a departure from prior years when finding even a description of a project was difficult.

"There were no last minute entrants into the budget on a back of a napkin," Corcoran said of this year's process.

While House and Senate leaders have fought to better justify hundreds of millions of dollars in local projects, there are still curiosities. Pensacola won $100,000 to build a statue of a Spanish sailor — Bernardo de Galvez — who defeated the British in 1781 in a battle in that city. Sarasota won $1 million for a circus conservatory and another $2.5 million for a rowing park. State taxpayers are helping build or repair fire stations for East Palatka, LaBelle and Wakulla County.

Young said she was disappointed that the Legislature couldn't get more for Lowry Park Zoo for their program to treat sick and injured manatees. The zoo has receive $2 million over the last two years for the project, but will get $500,000 this year.

Gov. Rick Scott, upset with the Legislature's refusal to fund his biggest priorities has vowed to scrutinize the budget when he gets its. He has the option to veto the entire budget or go line-by-line to strike out individual projects.

"But what I do every year is I go through (the budget) and say what's good for our Florida families," Scott told reporters in Tampa last week. "I represent everybody in the state, so I'm going to do what's best for every family in the state."

Contact Jeremy Wallace at [email protected] Follow @JeremySWallace

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