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Weatherford and Gaetz school Legislature in taking home bacon

The two most powerful men in the Florida Legislature are steering millions of dollars to community colleges in their districts.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, helped approve a list of allocations for state college projects that included $17.5 million for the advanced technology center at Panama City's Gulf Coast State College. That amount grew from an original Senate offer of a mere $300,000, but bloomed in a last-minute addition that was first announced on Saturday night.

Another $6.9 million was approved for a new Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Wesley Chapel, the home of Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford.

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"The speaker has been engaged in this process from the start," said Steve Schroeder, general counsel and executive director of governmental relations for the Pasco-Hernando Community College, which now has five campuses. "He's helped us much as he can. He's the one who got it in there for us this year."

Despite a promise by Gaetz and Weatherford that they would bring an unprecedented level of transparency to budget negotiations, lawmakers approved the expenditures without discussion on Saturday night.

Both projects are tucked in a $74 billion budget draft that is due in final form on Tuesday. Lawmakers vote on it Friday.

What's the rationale for the projects? It didn't come from the Department of Education, which oversees state colleges and recommends spending on colleges to lawmakers. The agency didn't include any special projects for next year in its budget request to lawmakers.

For the 2014-15 budget year, it recommends only $441,375 for the Gulf Coast State College. In 2015-16, it recommends only $434,033. The DOE does recommend the $6.9 million for the Wesley Chapel campus, but not until the 2014-2015 budget year. Even in that recommendation, however, there are 28 other colleges ranked ahead of it.

So how did the totals get approved? Welcome to Tallahassee politics, where the value of the project matters less than who's recommending it.

Budget conference meetings are held in public to announce only the spending decisions that were made behind closed doors. Who asked for it and why are often closely guarded secrets.

When asked who helped inform the decision that was made for the windfall of money to Gulf Coast, Senate Appropriations Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, was hardly illuminating.

"The whole reason to have a conference process is to be able to have conferees representing the rest of the chamber take a final look at the budget and make adjustments where they deem it appropriate," Negron told reporters. "Just because something happens later in the process doesn't mean it's more or less appropriate than something that occurs earlier in the process. These are routine kinds of modifications that are made in the process."

Asked if Gaetz had a hand in the decision, his spokeswoman, Katie Betta, replied that he not only approved the list of college projects to get funding, but helped select them, too.

"One of the Senate's top priorities is linking education to the realities of the economy and the construction of a STEM facility is in line with that priority," Betta said in an email. "As with other items in the budget, while the recommendations of the agency are given tremendous consideration in the budget, the input of Senators, who are elected by the people, and other stake holders, is also valued."

The money comes from the Public Education Capital Outlay fund, (PECO), which is the state's reservoir from taxes collected on utilities.

Though the state economist Amy Baker had earlier said that there would only be about $86 million in PECO for next year, none of which would be available for new projects, lawmakers approved spending $300 million for a host of spending, including charter schools ($77 million, up from $55 million this year), university maintenance ($44 million, up from $7 million), college maintenance ($41 million, up from $5 million), and, $136 million in special projects.

State universities raked in $51.6 million in special projects, even though the Board of Governors, which oversees the 12 universities, didn't recommend any special spending. Colleges won $75 million for special projects, even though the DOE didn't make any recommendations.

Schroeder said those recommendations were made when PECO wasn't expected to have excess money available.

"We've been fighting for this money for years," Schroeder said, noting that the allocation was approved by the Legislature in 2011, only to have it vetoed later by Gov. Rick Scott. Last year, the request died in conference.

The campus is expected to open in January. About $40 million has already been spent for two buildings, with the remaining $7 million needed to complete the project, Schroeder said.

"We were pleased to see it included in the House budget and for it get approved in conference," Schroeder said.

Lawmakers also approved spending for the University of South Florida.

It racked up $3.5 million for its Interdisciplinary Science Teaching & Research Facility and $10 million for its Heart Health Institute (last year it got $6.9 million in state funding for its initial design of the institute). Those line items were included in the original House offer, though for larger amounts of $12.5 million and $16 million, respectively. But on Saturday, the Senate announced a late addition: $5 million for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's College of Business. The Senate's earlier proposal was for only $1 million and wasn't included in the House offer.

"We're happy with anything that we get that moves us toward the goal," said Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who sits on the joint appropriations conference.

Did he and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, help push for the money?

"All of us, as a team, had something to do with it," Rouson said.