1. Florida Politics

Legislature's debt dispute looms over funding for USF projects

Gov. Scott is opposed to borrowing money on the bond market.
Gov. Scott is opposed to borrowing money on the bond market.
Published Jun. 11, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — There's another money dispute brewing in the Legislature, one that threatens funding for the University of South Florida's planned medical school building in downtown Tampa and new College of Business building in St. Petersburg.

The USF projects have broad bipartisan support in Tallahassee but must compete with scores of other projects all over the state.

At issue is whether to raise more cash for those projects by borrowing money on the bond market. The House of Representatives likes the idea. Top Senate officials and Gov. Rick Scott oppose it.

With bond money, presumably there could be enough to go around for the USF projects. Without it, don't count on the full amount.

"If we don't do bonding, I just can't see them giving that much money to the University of South Florida," said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa.

In Tampa, USF seeks $17 million for the Morsani College of Medicine building and $15.75 million for its USF Health Heart Institute. Plans call for building both on land donated by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik at his billion-dollar downtown development near Amalie Arena.

At USF St. Petersburg, the request is for $12.3 million to complete the construction of a 68,000-square-foot building for the Kate Tiedemann College of Business.

But what either project gets must wait on an answer to a bigger question of fiscal policy.

On Wednesday, Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, told reporters he and the House had an agreement that they would not approve any more bonding or financing with borrowed money in the special session.

"When we did (budget) allocations, the agreement between the House and the Senate was no bonding," Gardiner said. "That's an important piece of the discussion that was agreed to."

Not so, countered House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

"I understood that the Senate budget included no bonding," Crisafulli said in a statement. "However, I did not understand that the House could not continue to advocate for a limited amount of responsible bonding."

Bonding is a volatile and sensitive subject in Tallahassee.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has accused the House of hypocrisy for supporting borrowing for land and water — but opposing the Senate's plan to expand health care partly on the ground that expanding Medicaid would drive up the national debt. Disagreements about the use of bond debt also have rippled into the debate on spending for environmental projects.

Meanwhile, Scott has ardently opposed more borrowing. Total state debt has declined by several billion dollars since he took office.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, noted the importance of the USF medical projects, but his top higher education construction priority is finishing the College of Business project at USF St. Petersburg.

"I'm not sure that the lack of bonding is a final decision," Latvala said.

Gardiner and Crisafulli must reach a compromise and agreement on project funding by Monday in order to meet their informal timetable of ending the special session by the following Friday.

Local officials, USF and the Lightning all have lobbyists tracking the medical school funding through the appropriations process.

"It's chaotic, to say the least," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. Still, "I still feel pretty good, based on conversations I've had with members of our delegation, that certainly the med school continues to be perceived positively."

Although it's great to have "guys from the bay area" — Lee and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — as appropriations chairmen who "know how important this is to us," Buckhorn said he recognizes the process is "combustible."

Buckhorn said he talks to Scott about the medical school project virtually "every time I see him," and he knows Scott also talks regularly with Vinik, who recently wrote a check for $100,000 to Scott's political committee, Let's Get to Work.

"In every conversation I've had with (Scott), he's been supportive," Buckhorn said. "I think he recognizes what an economic boost it would be for downtown, and it fits right in his wheelhouse with job creation."

For USF, a key question is the size of the appropriation. With the medical school, for example, if the total were close to the $33 million, the university could move ahead with construction in the fall. If it were a fraction of the total — say, $5 million — USF might have to wait for another legislative funding cycle.

And what happens if the Legislature doesn't appropriate the medical school funding?

"I think Jeff's going to move forward regardless," said Buckhorn, who is overseeing a city commitment to kick in as much as $15 million for roads, water and sewer pipes and other infrastructure Vinik's project needs.

Vinik's business team declined to comment.

"In the last couple days of the session, you just don't know what's going to happen," Buckhorn said. "We've just got to get it through the process and get it to the governor's desk. That's the challenge for us right now."

Times staff writer Jamal Thalji and researcher John Martin contributed to this report.