Much was made about the University of South Florida St. Petersburg receiving the largest portion of $175 million in “local support grants” for 238 projects across the state last month.
The governor vetoed the $75 million earmarked by the legislature for USF to begin constructing a much-anticipated Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research Facility (EOS) on the campus in June. As such, university officials saw local legislators securing $15 million to establish the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation in September as a step in the right direction toward building a mecca for marine science at USFSP.
However, just as communities along the Gulf Coast suffered devasting flooding from Hurricane Ian’s storm surge and torrential rains, Governor Ron DeSantis failed to distribute the money to agencies by a Sept. 30 deadline mandated by state law. Sen. Jeff Brandes said the $175 million – including $15 million for the Flood Hub and $10.9 million for several other Pinellas County projects – will return to state reserves.
Brandes, a term-limited St. Peterburg Republican, told the Catalyst that the governor meant to show who runs the Florida political apparatus.
“He’s saying, ‘listen, I’m the only one in town who is going to be allocating these funds,” said Brandes. “And he can do his grants and other things like that.'”
University administrators declined to comment.
Lawmakers included the newly created Local Support Grants Program in this year’s budget, which DeSantis signed into law in June. The mechanism essentially extended the appropriations period after the governor vetoed over $3.1 billion in funding for projects, including many sponsored by the state’s Republican leadership – like the EOS.
Palm Harbor resident, USF alum and Speaker of the House Chris Sprowls increased appropriated funding for the facility from $60 million to $75 million during March’s legislative session. Rep. Linda Chaney, a fellow Pinellas County Republican, sponsored the request for the Flood Hub, while Sprowls served as a powerful advocate.
A representative who answered the phone at Sprowls’ Clearwater office said he was out of town. An emailed request for comment went unreturned as of press time.
About a week after the legislators approved the $15 million for the Flood Hub – currently operating out of the neighboring Maritime and Defense Technology Hub – the Downtown Partnership hosted a luncheon celebrating USF President Rhea Law’s first year at the helm on the St Petersburg campus.
“This gives us the first start,” she said at the event. “The leg up to get this going and to make sure that it is a center of excellence that we have here in St. Petersburg.”
Following the luncheon, Lauren Hartmann, director of state government affairs for USF, said the Flood Hub is a significant aspect of the governor’s environmental resiliency plans.
She called the new community support grant process “uncharted territory” but said supporting the facility was a legislative priority.
“I think they’re really excited about the work that the Flood Hub will do,” said Hartmann. “And it’s incredibly timely right now, with the governor’s Resilient Florida Program.”
The Joint Legislative Budget Commission named 238 local grant recipients out of 971 requests. However, finalization required the governor to issue a memo to state agencies before they could distribute the funds.
DeSantis did not issue an announcement when he declined to provide the order by the specified date. Despite the Sept. 30 deadline, Brandes said Hurricane Ian did not play any part in the decision. He explained that the governor has $30 billion in reserves and plenty of money in other funds.
In addition to hurricane responses, a state government press release shows that DeSantis appointed 11 people to the CareerSource Florida Board of Directors on that same date.
Hartmann noted last month that lawmakers “did not want to lose any steam” for the project. Brandes said Friday that the governor sent another message to the legislature that he is in charge.
“Had this been the first term of the Speaker or the Senate President (Wilton Simpson), he would have never done this,” said Brandes. “But it’s their second term – they’re out.
“He’s got a new Speaker and Senate President coming in a couple weeks, and that’s what he cares about, not the past ones. Welcome to politics.”
The state senator reiterated his belief that the House “got greedy” with the amount of money it requested, specifically for the EOS. He believes the governor looked at the budget and thought, “you couldn’t spend $70 million in one year there if you tried.”
Brandes added that university officials could probably only spend $11 to $12 million per year to build the projects, but DeSantis would prefer to spread the money out over time. He is confident both facilities will come to fruition but believes the governor wants to control the timing.
Although unsure why DeSantis did not veto the entire program from the budget in June, Brandes said it was likely “so that he had something to hold over the legislature, as a carrot.” Brandes added, “the fascinating thing is, some of these projects that were on this grant list – were previously funded.”
That includes the Florida Flood Hub, which received $5.5 million in June.
“This was not a move because he didn’t have the money,” said Brandes. “This is a move because he consistently wants to show the legislature who is boss.”