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  1. Florida Politics

USF's downtown med school move survives in new state budget

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators late Monday night completed work on a new state budget, securing $29 million for two major construction projects at the University of South Florida and rejecting a third.

In an avalanche of spending deals ratified shortly before midnight, lawmakers agreed to give $17 million to USF to move the Morsani College of Medicine to a new downtown Tampa location and to contribute $12.3 million to USF St. Petersburg's College of Business.

"It's great news," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Tuesday morning.

A third USF request for a little less than $16 million for a Heart Health Institute will receive no money in the new budget.

Seemingly out of nowhere, horse-trading lawmakers also agreed on hundreds of millions of dollars for water projects, recreation complexes and cultural programs, all of it sealed in private and ratified in public with virtually no discussion of individual spending items.

"Almost all of these issues have been around and vetted at the committee levels," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "They dropped out in the negotiations between the House and Senate but we were able to resurrect them."

All of the last-minute projects still must survive Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen.

In a year in which both powerful budget chairmen, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and Lee, are from the Tampa Bay area, USF appeared to be politically well-positioned to secure money for its big projects.

"Our delegation members really went to the well for us, particularly Tom Lee and Richard Corcoran, and my sense is that they were in there fighting to the very last minute to make sure that this happened," Buckhorn said. The mayor said he had not yet talked with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who has committed to donate money for the USF Health project downtown, but he assumed that the $17 million would be sufficient to proceed.

Both the Morsani College of Medicine and the heart institute are planned to be in the same building, and Buckhorn noted that the heart institute has previously received money from the Legislature. So he said he thinks USF was already in position to proceed with the planning and design on the heart institute, a process he expected to take nine to 12 months.

"The critical part for us was that the med school was able to do the same," he said. "I think by seeding both of them, they can both move forward."

Vinik's development team has said that it's looking to start construction on roads and other infrastructure for the $1 billion redevelopment around Amalie Arena in August. The Lightning's Stanley Cup playoffs haven't "stopped the development team and our team from literally working weekly to start getting ready," Buckhorn said.

The appropriations came after some 11th-hour sorting of priorities.

USF president Judy Genshaft said in email to Corcoran Friday that the College of Business project was her university's highest priority, but that USF would need a minimum of $6.5 million through next March, not the full $12.3 million, to keep the project on track.

She also made a pitch for the other two projects, which have broad community support.

"While construction . . . has not yet begun, we remain optimistic that sufficient funding can be provided to begin that co-located (Heart/Morsani) project in downtown Tampa as soon as possible," Genshaft wrote.

All three USF projects were in the original House budget that passed in April. None of the three was earmarked in the original Senate budget, but Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, enthusiastically endorsed the USF projects in downtown Tampa.

"I don't know much about the USF downtown project, other than I believe that downtown university campuses are really an economic generator," Gardiner said. "I'd like to see the state be a partner with them."

Gardiner's hometown university, the University of Central Florida in Orlando, is slated to received $15 million out of $58 million sought in the first year of a three-year bounty of $165 million for a "downtown presence" in Orlando.

Tampa officials describe their project as a game-changer for the city's urban core.

"Transformative," Buckhorn said.

In a business plan filed with the state, USF said the project would unite researchers, patients at Tampa General Hospital, the existing USF Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation and corporate space in Vinik's planned office, residential and entertainment district.

The USF project is seen as an anchor for Vinik's larger $1 billion redevelopment in downtown Tampa. City Hall and Hills­borough County are expected to spend up to $30 million on street and infrastructure improvements. Vinik's development company plans to build a medical office building and parking garage on the site with a value estimated at $90 million.

USF had said that being close to Tampa General would help the heart institute attract researchers who would bring in an estimated $28 million more per year in research grants, and a more robust research environment would draw biotech start-ups to downtown. With a downtown medical school, USF also could attract more top medical students, and the Tampa Bay area would have a better shot at keeping them, according to the university's analysis.

Already, the university says, more USF medical students live within 2 miles of the downtown Tampa site than near USF's campus. A survey of "highly competitive" students who were accepted at USF but decided to go elsewhere found that a downtown location near Tampa General Hospital would have helped change their minds.

Even with legislative support for the two USF projects, Gov. Rick Scott, a friend of Vinik's, must approve them. The Board of Governors, Florida's policymaking board for higher education, also must approve relocation of the USF Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Institute to the downtown location, Board of Governors spokeswoman Brittany Davis said.

Legislators hope to end their special three-week session on Friday, one day early. To meet that timetable, they must finish the budget by today. The Florida Constitution requires a 72-hour delay from the time the budget is completed until lawmakers can vote on it.

South Florida was less successful in seeking of tens of millions of dollars from the same pot of construction money. It is only receiving $2.3 million out of $8.1 million requested for a chiller plant expansion for Florida International University's Modesto Maidique Campus. Another $14.7 million request for Florida Atlantic University's Jupiter campus was apparently rejected.

The final decisions on which projects would survive and for how much money were largely under the control of four men in a 160-member Legislature: Gardiner, Lee, Corcoran and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, helped manage billions in education spending from kindergarten through graduate school in the budget. But he said college and university construction, known as PECO for public education capital outlay, was being tightly controlled by a few men at the top.

"When it comes to those PECO projects, I'm strictly middle management," Gaetz said.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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