How do you turn a budget turkey into a peacock? Contributing at least $210,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's re-election effort does wonders. That's how much cash the governor received between vetoing state money for a Sarasota rowing center in 2011 and approving millions for the boondoggle he celebrated last week. The rowing center symbolizes Scott's transformation from a candidate who paid for his campaign himself to an incumbent who embraces Tallahassee's pay-to-play culture.
The $40 million rowing center project is under construction and scheduled for completion in 2015. The complex will include a boathouse, towers, grandstands and a 2,000-meter sprint course as well as practice facilities. Scott vetoed an appropriation for the facility in 2011, brushing it off as a special interest budget turkey with no statewide purpose. That was before the checks started rolling in.
Over the last two years, Scott has allowed $10 million in taxpayer money to flow to the rowing center. During the same period, Scott's "Let's Get To Work" committee received $125,000 in donations from Benderson Development, which owns the land for the rowing center. He received another $85,000 from Pat Neal, the nearby Lakewood Ranch developer who would benefit from the project. Scott also has received $1,000 from Diane Bennett, the wife of former state senator and current Manatee County Supervisor of Elections Mike Bennett, who helped lead the effort in the Senate to secure state funding for the rowing center. Bennett is a consultant for an electrical contractor on the facility bidding for work on the project, which could run from $200,000 to $2 million. Benderson Development president Randy Benderson even got an extra bonus for his generosity — a Business Ambassador Award medal from the governor. He clearly earned it.
Scott says supporters of the project convinced him of the economic benefits and tourism allure of the rowing center, which is expected to host international competitions. But similar economic arguments were being made when Scott first vetoed the project. What's different is the $210,000 in political contributions and the approach of a difficult re-election campaign.
In addition to the $10 million in state money, the rowing center has received $19.5 million from Sarasota County and $1.5 million from Manatee County. Private donations are expected to make up the balance of the $40 million price tag. But Tampa Bay already has a venue for rowing teams from around the world to train and practice — along the banks of the Hillsborough River near the University of Tampa campus. And it is free.
Scott spent more than $70 million of his own money to become governor, campaigning against the special interests and pledging to be different. It turns out he is not different at all. His political committee just collects bigger checks.