Veto woes: The human side of Rick Scott’s budget massacre

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click to enlarge Harry the green sea turtle, a longtime resident of Mote Marine Institute, which lost out on funding for research infrastructure. - Kassie O'Brien
Kassie O'Brien
Harry the green sea turtle, a longtime resident of Mote Marine Institute, which lost out on funding for research infrastructure.

Free orange juice at roadside welcome centers wasn’t a matter of life and death.

And maybe quite a few other of the dozens of seemingly random line items Governor Rick Scott axed last month were frivolous in nature and would have benefited only a few.

But CEO Scott seems to see people and their endeavors, no matter how noble, as line items on a spreadsheet to be cut if they don’t adequately suit the bottom line.

As has been reported, he has slashed $461 million in funding from the state budget for projects that would have helped a lot of people in Tampa Bay and throughout the state. Many of the would-be beneficiaries were nonprofits, and that hoped-for state money would have constituted a relatively large chunk of their budgets or covered long-needed maintenance.

In the wake of the vetoes, reporters connected the dots between the projects that were vetoed and the lawmakers who backed them. In many cases, Scott appeared to slight those who had crossed him — like powerful State Senator Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has criticized the governor on multiple fronts, such as his refusal to talk about expanding Medicaid to low-income Floridians — while leaving funding for similar projects proposed by more Scott-friendly lawmakers intact.

We spoke with a handful of organizations in Tampa Bay that were affected by the vetoes. In more cases than one, Latvala’s name came up. We asked the leadership at these places where that money would have gone and how they’ll try to make do without.

Homeless Empowerment Project, Clearwater
Rejected: $400,000 for renovation of apartment homes

Nestled on an eight-acre campus just north of downtown, this nonprofit, formerly known as the Homeless Emergency Project, houses an average of 360 people per day, many of them vets. The agency serves an average of 90,000 meals a year to clients in a range of situations. Services include short and long-term housing, medical care, dental and psychological health and job skills training.

“It’s super comprehensive,” said Terrence McAbee, the nonprofit’s CEO.

The organization has an annual budget of about $5 million, 40 percent of which comes from federal dollars. The rest comes from donations, sales from an adjacent thrift store, and city and county dollars — some in the form of loans.

Apparently, that money is put to good use. Some 90 percent of those HEP serves never return to homelessness, McAbee said, a rate that seems remarkable considering the agency doesn’t cherry-pick its clients and accepts homeless on a first-come, first-served basis.

The money Governor Scott axed last Tuesday was supposed to pay for extensive renovations to a 16-unit apartment complex at the north end of the campus that houses families with children. Some of the parents residing there are veterans.

“We’ve been housing families there since 1998,” McAbee said. “These are homeless kids that have been getting on honor roll and graduating. We’ve had a girl go through there and go to FSU. So the outcomes are great for that building.”

It looks like any apartment complex from far away, but up close you can see the corroded aluminum siding and rusted stairwells. Inside some units, the floors are uneven. The money would have covered new floors and siding, among other things.

“That siding may seem like it’s a vanity issue, but because it’s old and cracked and worn out, water is getting back there and rotting out the sides on the wood in the structure,” McAbee said. “So that’s a real structural issue. That’s something that that $400,000 could have addressed.”

It’s unclear what Scott’s motivation was in vetoing aid to HEP, especially given the fact that when he’s on the campaign trail he spends a lot of time talking about how he lived in government housing for part of his childhood. Politics, of course, could be at play.

“Jack Latvala went to bat for us,” McAbee said. “He’s a supporter of our agency.”

The agency is now scrambling to figure out how to obtain money to cover the renovation projects. Donations will be sought, though people aren’t really giving at the level they did prior to the Great Recession, he said.

Borrowing more money wouldn’t be ideal, but HEP will do it if it means clients won’t have to live in substandard housing.

“We’ve already gotten loans from the city and county, so we’re just going to continue to add on to our existing debt if we do that,” McAbee said.

Mote Marine Lab, Sarasota
Rejected: $500,000 for research infrastructure

To outsiders, Mote may look like a cool place to spend an afternoon checking out manatees and sharks. An ever-changing spate of exhibits has included a colony of adorable penguins and a giant, embalmed squid.

But the facility’s educational component is just one aspect of its mission. Mote conducts extensive research on marine ecology. Sixty years ago its focus was solely on sharks, but research has expanded into more than two dozen divisions covering everything from spotted eagle rays to marine biomedical research.

The half a million would have helped the facility expand those research operations.

“The vetoed funds for infrastructure were intended to grow and enhance our research facilities on City Island, Sarasota, to better support our growing ‘Mote family,’ particularly our next generation of exceptional scientists,” Mote President and CEO Michael Crosby said in an emailed statement.

He added that in the past year, Mote has added five PhD researchers to its staff.

Vetoing a project that would help such a facility attract high-calibre employees seems counter to Scott’s jobs-heavy platform.

The state spends millions pitching Florida to businesses looking to move or expand to other states, but Mote is already in Florida, growing jobs of its own since 1955.

The lab will try again for the money next year.

“To continue expanding our research enterprise in Florida, and its positive impacts throughout the world, it will be important for us to work together with our elected delegation and the Governor to seek funding next year for these research facilities upgrades that will allow us to attract the best and brightest minds in marine science, which is a core part of Mote’s 2020 Vision & Strategic Plan,” Crosby said.

Tampa Bay History Center, Tampa
Rejected: $2.5 million for museum expansion

Northerners like to deride Tampa and other Florida cities as lacking in history — but those of us who live here know better.

From a large dugout canoe just inside its main gallery to the “chads” on display from the 2000 election, this large downtown Tampa facility gives tourists and locals alike a comprehensive glimpse into this region’s colorful history, one that has had more national significance than one might think.

Since it opened in 2009, museum officials have wanted to expand by way of an 8,000-foot gallery space. The project has an estimated cost of $5 million. Local lawmakers sought $2.5 million from the state, the rest having been matched with private money, said Manny Leto, a spokesman for the museum.

The exhibit is supposed to focus on the region’s integral relationship to regional waterways.

“Primarily it’s a maritime-focused exhibit, basically covering the maritime history of the Tampa Bay area,” he said.

That history goes beyond the large volumes of citrus that ship out of the Port of Tampa each year. Think pirates, conquistadores, Civil War blockades and shipbuilding during WWII.

Leto said the museum, like other organizations that lost out during the special legislative session, will have to find the money elsewhere.

Tampa Theatre, Tampa
Rejected: $1 million for infrastructure upgrades

Inside and out, this nearly 90-year-old theater is a Tampa icon.

Most of what you see inside of the ornate movie house and music venue has stayed the same for decades — including the 1926 wiring and circuitry that still run throughout much of the building.

So management decided it was time for an upgrade. The theater is a nonprofit, and can’t exactly conjure a million bucks on a whim.

Tampa Theatre spokeswoman Jill Witecki said Latvala led the effort in the Senate, and State Rep. Dana Young, a Tampa Republican, pushed for the funding on the house side.

“[W]hile the state money would have greatly accelerated our ability to get the work underway, the fact that we’re not going to get it doesn’t change the needs of this very large, very complex, very ornate historic building,” Witecki said in an email. “As a nonprofit arts organization, fundraising is at our core, and we will continue to explore every avenue. And believe me — although the $1 million would have been a great help, it would only have covered a fraction of the total needs of the building.”

All Children’s Hospital, St. Petersburg
Rejected: $2 million for a “pediatric research zone”

Downtown St. Pete is in the midst of a construction boom. Many of the luxury apartments and condo towers going up are expected to house the employees of expanding medical facilities like ACH.

While All Children’s may have expanded significantly in recent years, it’s a nonprofit hospital that earns the bulk of its revenue from Medicaid. So it relies on help at the state and federal level.

The money would have helped the hospital expand its research operations.

“The pediatric research zone is a project leading advancements in diagnosis and treatment of pediatric illnesses affecting Florida’s children and their families,” said Amy Maguire, vice president of government and community relations for the hospital, in an email. “This will attract new pediatric scientists, researchers and support a research platform that could facilitate growth of the state’s emerging leadership in the biotechnology industry.”

Once again, Latvala led on the effort, with help from Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) as well as State Reps. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg), Chris Sprowls (R-Palm Harbor) and Jim Boyd (R-Bradenton).

The $2 million would have funded some 25 to 30 high-paying jobs, Maguire said.

“We are disappointed in the Governor’s veto of this important project,” she continued, “that not only focuses on pediatric research in genetics, cancer and neurology, to name a few, but also brings high-paying jobs to Florida and the Tampa Bay region.”

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