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Tampa Bay vetoes ‘disappointing,’ say area leaders

Gov. Ron DeSantis cuts high-profile allocations in Pasco County
Tampa Bay Rays pitchers Shane McClanahan (18), Luis Patiño (61) and Cody Reed (54) practice a drill with assistant pitching and rehab coach Rick Knapp (92) at the Charlotte Sports Park spring training complex in Port Charlotte in March. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $35 million allocation for a youth sports complex in Odessa in Pasco County that had been earmarked as a potential future spring training site for the Rays.
Tampa Bay Rays pitchers Shane McClanahan (18), Luis Patiño (61) and Cody Reed (54) practice a drill with assistant pitching and rehab coach Rick Knapp (92) at the Charlotte Sports Park spring training complex in Port Charlotte in March. Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a $35 million allocation for a youth sports complex in Odessa in Pasco County that had been earmarked as a potential future spring training site for the Rays. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Jun. 2|Updated Jun. 3

Pasco County’s ambition to be host to a world class cancer research institute and a spring training home for the Tampa Bay Rays didn’t square with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ veto pen.

In vetoing $3.1 billion from the state budget approved by the Legislature, the governor cut two separate $20 million allocations for the planned H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute’s health science park on nearly 800 acres in central Pasco. One of the appropriations called for $20 million in recurring dollars for Moffit over the next 30 years.

In his veto message, DeSantis said he didn’t support a 30-year commitment that would inhibit future budget flexibility and create hundreds of millions of dollars in debt without state oversight.

The governor eliminated $7 million for a planned school on the campus, $14 million to extend Pasco County’s Ridge Road eastward from the Moffitt site to U.S. 41 and $50 million to widen County Line Road separating Pasco and Hernando counties.

The money had been sought by Pasco’s legislative delegation including Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Simpson did not return text and voicemail messages seeking comment.

The governor also vetoed $35 million for a youth sports complex in Odessa that had been earmarked as a potential future spring training site for the Tampa Bay Rays.

“Not unexpected, but it was disappointing that our youth sports complex was vetoed,” said Pasco commission chairperson Kathryn Starkey. “More disappointing are two of the other vetoes — Ridge Road and the recurring money for Moffitt.”

“That one (Moffitt) hurt quite a bit.” she said.

She remained optimistic about baseball being a part of Pasco County’s future.

“Things like that (state money for sports) are very hard to keep alive,” she said. “I’m not saying baseball is dead here because I still think we’ll have a conversation with the Rays, but this certainly makes it more difficult.”

The vetoes of Tampa Bay area projects further included $11.7 million for the Academy at the Farm charter school in east Pasco, nearly $40 million for Dade City to move its sewage treatment plant out of a historically black neighborhood, and multiple allocations for the Pioneer Florida Museum, Saint Leo University and the city of Brooksville in Hernando County.

DeSantis’ vetoes also struck a blow to an effort pushed by outgoing House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, to develop an oceanographic science center at the University of South Florida.

Sprowls, a USF alum, was credited by university officials as being instrumental in driving funding for the center in his push to make the St. Petersburg campus a nationally recognized marine science hub. The ocean science facility was also USF’s top legislative priority.

The governor vetoed the $75 million legislators had slated for the project, which would cost an estimated $80 million to build.

In a message to the USF community expressing gratitude to the governor and legislature for “the most transformative budget in the University of South Florida history,” USF President Rhea Law listed more than $244 million worth of projects funded.

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”Unfortunately, the $75 million to construct the new Environmental & Oceanographic Science Research & Teaching facility at the St. Petersburg campus was vetoed,” she wrote. “We remain committed to the development of our USF St. Petersburg campus and our goals to increase the campus’ international prominence as a hub for environmental and oceanographic research and scholarship.”

Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said in a statement he was “outraged” to hear about the ocean center veto.”This is a devastating loss for St. Petersburg residents and all Floridians, as this new facility would produce critical research in Florida’s fight against climate change.”

Officials in Pinellas County feared a decision by the commission to sue the state over a provision of DeSantis’ election law would prompt retaliation by the governor on funding requests.

But in the veto-heavy budget, Pinellas County Commission chairperson Charlie Justice, a Democrat, said he was relieved two major requests from Pinellas survived.

He said the $15 million for environmental remediation of the Toytown landfill is a huge Pinellas priority that remained in the state budget. Nearly $9.5 million included for stormwater improvements in North Pinellas “will be huge for Crystal Beach and Ozona,” Justice said.

However, he lamented the loss of money for much needed dredging of the Grand Canal in Tierra Verde and funding for fire departments in Lealman, St. Pete Beach and Palm Harbor.

“Everyone got hit pretty good,” Justice said. “At first glance, it doesn’t seem like we were treated worse than anyone else.”

In fact, former St. Petersburg City Council member and Republican mayoral hopeful Robert Blackmon celebrated Thursday as his pet project to revive the Pinellas Science Center not only survived the cuts, but received another $2 million from the Legislature.

State Rep. Linda Chaney, R-St. Pete Beach, appropriated $1.5 million for the center. She also secured another $500,000 for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, called STEAM, for the center.

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Amanda Sinni confirmed the department will stop planning for its Pursuit Driver Training Facility after its request for nearly $5 million was vetoed.

The finances at the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority also took a significant hit with the veto of $375,000 in operating funds, plus $1 million to restart a commuter transportation service. It is the third consecutive year that DeSantis vetoed funding for the transit planning agency known commonly by its acronym, TBARTA. It is comprised of Manatee, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, plus the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Without state funding, the agency may have to ask each member government to make up the difference.

“While disappointed, we have yet to discuss next steps with the TBARTA Board,” said its executive director, David Green. “...Will know more after that.”

Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long said the veto of money for the agency is reminiscent of Gov. Rick Scott’s rejecting $1 billion federal transportation money in his first year in office.

”Here we go, deja vu,” Long said. “For me it’s pennywise and pound foolish and totally taking your eye off the ball of the future. We’re not making these decisions for us today, we’re making these decisions for future generations, our kids and our grandchildren. That’s obviously not the plan of the governor.”

Starkey said she was disappointed by the vetoes but said they shouldn’t be a surprise.

“We’ll move on,” she said. “This happens every year.”

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