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  1. Florida Politics

Local projects take hit as Rick Scott vetoes more than $400 million from budget

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott vetoed more than $34 million in state funds headed to Tampa Bay late Friday, freeing up money to fund his priorities in a budget deal he and legislative leaders sealed in private.

Among the local casualties: $1.2 million for the Florida Institute of Oceanography at the University of South Florida, a $1 million water transportation project for Forward Pinellas and a $1 million expansion of Ruth Eckerd Hall.

And Pasco County — home to House Speaker Richard Corcoran with whom Scott has feuded all year — was particularly hard hit. Scott rejected a $15 million Interstate 75 overpass, $4.3 million for a human decomposition lab at the Thomas Varnadoe Forensic Center and other, smaller projects for a combined total of $22 million.

"It's a statewide project," Corcoran said of the lab. "It's the first of its kind in not only Florida but the southeastern United States. . . . We'll fight for it again next year."

Still, Corcoran, who spent the morning in Miami with Scott unveiling the budget agreement, said the vetoed funds are better used for statewide priorities like a larger increase in per-pupil K-12 education spending.

"What's more important than projects, as important as they are to our county, is statewide programs that make a difference to the entire state," he said.

All told, Scott vetoed $409 million, which the Legislature will use for a new economic development fund and to increase per-pupil spending in the K-12 education budget when lawmakers come back to Tallahassee in a special session starting Wednesday. To do that, Scott also had to veto $11.5 billion from the education budget.

CLICK TO SEE THE GOVERNOR'S VETOS: The 2017 Veto List

Scott has now vetoed more spending than any governor, including Jeb Bush, who earned the nickname "Veto Corleone" for his aggressive use of the red pen. Since becoming governor in 2011, Scott has rejected $2.3 billion in spending.

Those raw numbers don't account for the size of the budget. In the years since Bush left office in 2005, the budget has grown, and the two Republican governors have on average vetoed about the same percent of the budget each year: Less than one-half of 1 percent.

Local groups that hoped to have access to state tax money expressed dismay late Friday after Scott's office released his vetoes.

Scott vetoed $400,000 for the St. Petersburg Warehouse Arts District, which last year got $300,000.

"We're disappointed, of course," said Mary Jane Park, the executive director of the Warehouse District Arts Association. "It's a tough budget year. We'll continue to move forward with our studios at the Arts Exchange and additional programming in the Warehouse Arts District."

Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county's transportation and land-use planning agency, said he thought the organization had a chance to receive the $1 million to improve water transportation in the area. The money, he said, would have helped improve dock areas and helped pay for vessels, among other water-transit projects.

"I'm not terribly surprised," Blanton said. "I think it was a worthwhile project, and we'll keep trying."

In Hillsborough County, most of local lawmakers' highest priorities survived the ax.

Most importantly: $12 million for the Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute at USF. The state has already given about $79 million to the new downtown Tampa medical education center over the years, and this year's money is supposed to get the site ready for construction this year.

As for the vetoes in Corcoran's back yard, some veterans of the Capitol are calling them personal attacks.

"This is a smack in the face to Corcoran, that's all this is," said former state legislator Mike Fasano, the speaker's longtime friend and current Pasco tax collector. "This is the governor playing silly politics. The people of Pasco will remember at election time."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Steve Bousquet, Mark Puente, Charles Frago and Christopher O'Donnell contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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