Supporters of a major science center for the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus expressed surprise, even shock, when Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $75 million for the project on Thursday.
University officials envisioned it as a centerpiece of the waterfront campus, an idea that had solid support from the community and key lawmakers.
But many of those who pushed for the project said Friday they remained confident it would receive state approval next year.
“I’m disappointed, but I’m not discouraged,” said Martin Tadlock, USF’s outgoing regional chancellor in St. Petersburg. “I don’t think anyone is discouraged.”
Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District, said the community would continue to rally for the center.
“I thought we had some really great momentum and tremendous support from the Legislature,” she said. “I do think this is not the end of this idea. I hope that next year we come back stronger.”
The facility, dubbed the Interdisciplinary Center of Excellence in Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences, was at the top of the university’s legislative wish list this session, with president Rhea Law rallying support. It was to be part of a new identity for the St. Petersburg campus, with a focus on marine sciences, solving coastal issues and helping businesses navigate climate change.
The project was a priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls, who called the College of Marine Sciences a “crowning jewel,” and it appeared to be well on track.
The Legislature had approved millions above USF’s original ask.
And at a March meeting of the USF board of trustees, chairperson Will Weatherford, a former House Speaker, told colleagues to prepare for big news out of Tallahassee.
“If you see a legislator, thank a legislator,” he said. “What they’re doing for the University of South Florida right now, I’m telling you, it’ll come out in black and white soon. But it has the potential to be the most transformational budget year in the history of the university.”
After the veto, university officials expressed gratitude that the state budget met most of their needs. It contained more than $244 million in new funds, including $55 million more for the school’s operating budget. But others wondered what the Republican governor’s decision said about his relationship with St. Petersburg.
When Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, saw the ocean science center on DeSantis’ veto list, he said he was speechless.
No one has explained to the legislative delegation why the project was axed, said Diamond, noting it was popular with state lawmakers in both parties, local politicians and business leaders.
“You just have to ask yourself, what does the governor have against St. Pete?” Diamond said.
Follow what’s happening in Tampa Bay schools
Subscribe to our free Gradebook newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
In response to a Tampa Bay Times email asking for an explanation of the veto, the governor’s office referred to his comments at a new conference Friday morning, where he said he did not want the budget to go above $110 billion in case of future economic instability.
“Just because something was vetoed does not necessarily mean it didn’t have any merit,” DeSantis said.
Sprowls’ office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Tadlock said he spoke to Law on Thursday and said she confirmed the center would continue to be the top legislative priority for USF going into the next year. A USF spokesperson said Law would not be available for interviews on the topic.
“This piece is the center of the entire direction we’ve been taking the past few years for the campus of St. Petersburg,” Tadlock said.
The university has made faculty hires over the last few years targeted toward the center’s areas of study, and it will continue to go down that path, he said.
“It makes sense,” Tadlock said. “It fits this area. It fits the need. It’s important to anyone living in a coastal community in the state of Florida, and we have all the expertise in St. Petersburg to continue to get this done.”
Jason Mathis, CEO of the Downtown St. Petersburg Partnership, said he is confident the city can continue to work with state leaders on the project and that private funding will be sought as well.
“We’re not losing hope or giving up,” he said.
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch said in a statement that his administration was disappointed about the veto but that the city will advocate for funding the center as a top priority next session.
City Council member Gina Driscoll said she’s waiting to learn more about why it was rejected. “Once we learn why the funding was vetoed, we’ll have an opportunity to recalibrate and put together a good plan to ensure that we receive the money next time,” she said.
“Politics are unpredictable,” Tadlock said. “So you just continue to pursue the right thing and get the support that you need to move the right thing forward, and eventually the stars will align.”
• • •
Sign up for the Gradebook newsletter!
Every Thursday, get the latest updates on what’s happening in Tampa Bay area schools from Times education reporter Jeffrey S. Solochek. Click here to sign up.