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School, officials believe DeSantis will fund USF science center

Mark Parker

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Before the governor's veto, the plan was for USF to rebuild and transform the Marine Science Labs at the College of Marine Science (pictured) into the USF Interdisciplinary Center for Excellence and Oceanographic Sciences (EOS). Photo by Mark Parker.

While surprised at Gov. Ron DeSantis’ veto of funding for a new oceanographic science center on the University of South Florida’s St. Petersburg campus, many local stakeholders expressed their belief that state support was just a year away.

Speaking at the first USF Board of Trustees meeting since DeSantis slashed $75 million for a new oceanographic science center on the St. Petersburg campus from the state’s budget, Chair Will Weatherford’s statements following a recent meeting with the governor echoed remarks from city business leaders and Sen. Jeff Brandes in the aftermath of the June 2 veto.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Weatherford, a former Florida House Speaker, said the governor supported the transformative project – just not the asking price.

“When you have your best legislative session ever, and you have hundreds of millions of dollars given to you, and the governor ends up vetoing $3 billion worth of projects in the budget – we were going to lose something,” said Weatherford.

“I think we were all disappointed it was the EOS (Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility) building – but frankly, I had a very strong conversation with him and his staff, and I want everyone to know there’s no philosophical challenge or issue with the building.”

A rendering of the $80 million EOS. Both Board of Trustees Chair Will Weatherford and Sen. Jeff Brandes believe the $75 million budget request was too high this year.

Weatherford believes the issue was with the amount of money requested at once for a singular facility.

In November 2021, USF President Rhea Law told the St. Petersburg City Council that she asked the State Legislature for $30 million this year and $30 million in 2023 to begin construction on the EOS. The university expects the facility to cost just over $80 million, with the Florida Board of Governors recommending USF contribute $20 million.

During March’s legislative session, lawmakers from the House and Senate – led by Palm Harbor resident, USF alum and Republican Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls – increased the project’s allocated funding from $60 million to $75 million.

“The governor and his team assured me that if it comes back up again next year, they’re going to be supportive,” said Weatherford.

In a June 6 interview with the Catalyst, Brandes, who took part in the session, said the increase in the legislative budget request was a bridge too far. He believes that the governor and his staff thought there were better uses for the $75 million this year, but the school will ultimately receive significant funding for the center next year,  “when they come back and sharpen their pencils on what the true cost will be,” said Brandes. “But it won’t be $75 million.”

Brandes believes that if the facility’s supporters split the funding into two years, it would have survived the governor’s veto pen. However, when a leader seeks to eliminate $3 billion from a budget, “you’re going to start with the big projects first.”

“You take a machete to the big projects – and that’s what he did,” said Brandes. “Especially when you feel like the projects are concentrated in leadership areas.”

The EOS, said Brandes, was seen as a Sprowls project. He noted that the governor also vetoed some of Senate President Wilton Simpson’s large initiatives due to the cost and lack of inclusivity with other areas in Florida.

“You could wipe out 100 other members’ projects and not get to $50 million,” said Brandes. “I think it was a failure of the House and Senate to negotiate with the governor’s office on that topic and have a good understanding of where they wanted to land.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, Law told attendees that the St. Petersburg campus did receive $3 million in operational support, $6.5 million for deferred maintenance – “which is well-needed” – and $5.5 million in state funding for the Florida Flood Hub for Research and Innovation.

Law also assured the trustees that the EOS is still at the top of USF’s capital improvements list. She said the university’s leadership would spend the year planning for the facility and ascertaining its programming before going back to the Legislature.

Law stressed the EOS’s importance to the university and the City of St. Petersburg, and she thanked the community for rallying together in support of the transformative project. She also credited the business leaders that sent letters expressing the benefits of the facility to state leadership.

“More importantly, thanks for what they’re going to do,” added Law. “Because we’re going back, and we’re going back strong. Right?”

“Yes,” answered Weatherford firmly and succinctly.

“You take the good with the bad,” he said, referring to the more than $244 million in new funding allocated to the university. “But there was a whole lot more good this year than bad.”

 

 

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    John Donovan

    June 16, 2022at3:27 pm

    USF St Petersburg and oceanographic research are a match made in heaven. Not many university’s have a campus on prime ocean access waterfront and have a Coast Guard Station as neighbors. On the campaign trail Fall 2022, I expect we’ll hear more about this. It will likely get approved after DeSantis re-election, and built during his 2nd term. All the adults expect this. Students might try playing nice.

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