Although surprised by Governor Ron DeSantis’ veto of funding for a new ocean science center on the St. Petersburg campus of the University of South Florida, many local stakeholders expressed their belief that the support of the State was no more than a year.
Speaking at USF’s first board meeting since DeSantis cut $75 million for a new ocean science center on the St. Petersburg campus from the state budget, the statements President Will Weatherford 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.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Weatherford, a former Florida House speaker, said the governor supports the transformation plan — but not the asking price.
“When you have your best legislative session ever, and you have hundreds of millions of dollars, and the governor ends up vetoing $3 billion worth of projects in the budget – we were going to lose something” , Weatherford said.
“I think we were all disappointed that it was the EOS (Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility) building – but frankly I had a very heated conversation with him and his staff, and I want that everyone knows that there is no challenge or philosophical problem with the building.”
Weatherford believes the issue was the amount of money demanded at a time for a singular installation.
In November 2021, USF President Rhea Law told St. Petersburg City Council that she had asked the state legislature for $30 million this year and $30 million in 2023 to start. building the EOS. The university expects the facility to cost just over $80 million, with Florida’s Board of Governors recommending USF contribute $20 million.
During the March legislative session, House and Senate lawmakers — led by Palm Harbor resident, former USF and Republican House Speaker Chris Sprows — increased funding for the project by $60 million. dollars to $75 million.
“Governor and his team have assured me that if it happens again next year, they will have my back,” Weatherford said.
In a June 6 interview with the Catalyst, Brandes, who attended the session, said the increase in the legislative budget request was a bridge too far. He thinks the governor and his staff thought there were better uses for the $75 million this year, but the school will eventually receive significant funding for the center next year, “when they come back and sharpen their skills. pencils on what the actual cost will be,” Brandes said. “But it won’t be $75 million.”
Brandes believes that if the installation’s supporters had split the funding over two years, it would have survived the governor’s veto. However, when a leader is looking to cut $3 billion from a budget, “you’re going to start with the big projects first.”
“You pick up a machete for big projects — and he did,” Brandes said. “Especially when you feel like the projects are focused in areas of leadership.”
The EOS, Brandes said, was considered a Sprows project. He noted that the governor also vetoed some of Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson’s big initiatives due to cost and a lack of inclusivity with other parts of Florida.
“You could wipe out 100 other members’ projects and not hit $50 million,” Brandes said. “I think it was a failure of the House and the Senate to negotiate with the governor’s office on this and really understand where they wanted to land.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Law told attendees that the St. Petersburg campus had received $3 million in operational support, $6.5 million for deferred maintenance — “which is much needed” — and $5.5 million in state funding for the Florida Flood Hub for Research and Innovation. .
Law also assured directors that EOS still tops USF’s list of capital improvements. She said the university’s leadership would spend the year planning the facility and verifying its programming before returning to the Legislative Assembly.
Law highlighted the importance of EOS to the university and the city of St. Petersburg, and she thanked the community for stepping up to support the transformation project. She also thanked the business leaders who sent letters expressing the benefits of the facility to state leaders.
“Most importantly, thank you for what they’re going to do,” Law added. “Because we are coming back, and we are coming back strong. Right?”
“Yes,” Weatherford answered 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 have been a lot more good than bad this year.”