Legislature favors LECOM over USF Sarasota-Manatee
By Zac Anderson
Among the $410 million in line-item budget vetoes issued last week by Florida Gov. Rick Scott were two big allocations for higher education institutions in Manatee County — $2.5 million for the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine and $3.3 million for the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee.
This week the Florida Senate voted to override some of Scott’s vetoes, but only one of the Manatee projects — the LECOM money — made the chamber’s override list.
LECOM is a private institution while USFSM is public. And the loss of funding for USFSM arguably is more detrimental to the institution than the loss of funding for LECOM.
The bulk of the $3.3 million USFSM will lose pays for a partnership with Mote Marine Laboratory that established the school’s first science degree program, a bachelor’s in biology. And the cut represents a huge chunk — 14 percent — of the school’s total state funding.
The LECOM money that the Senate wants to restore helps subsidize tuition for Florida residents. Some might question whether the school needs state money after it recently purchased the naming rights of a local baseball park. Since 1962 the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training facility in Bradenton had been named McKechnie Field after Hall-of-Famer Bill McKechnie. But in February the Pirates announced a 15-year naming agreement with LECOM. The stadium is now called LECOM Park. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.
So why did LECOM find support in the Senate while a public university nearby did not?
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, likely had a hand in the decision. He chairs the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee and has been a strong supporter of LECOM. In justifying the college’s state subsidy, supporters have argued that it helps train doctors who are more likely to stay in Florida and alleviate the state’s doctor shortage. It also is a large employer and financial engine for the region.
“I can’t think of an institution that has been better for the Tampa Bay area, especially Manatee and Sarasota County,” Galvano said earlier this week when asked about Scott’s veto of the LECOM money. “It’s been absolutely phenomenal.”
Galvano could not be reached for comment Thursday about why LECOM was added to the list of 19 projects — totaling $75 million — that the Senate targeted for veto overrides and not USFSM.
In a text message, Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, said he was disappointed that Scott had vetoed the USFSM money, which he noted was recurring money that has been in the budget for years and funds a program “with proven results for our students.”
This is not the first time a private institution in Manatee County has received preference over public ones in state funding decisions. The private IMG Academy, a sports training center and major regional employer in Bradenton, has received a series of budget earmarks in recent years. In 2015, IMG received more than $2 million, even as the rowing complex at Nathan Benderson Park — which is public — failed to receive any funding that year to help prepare for the 2017 World Rowing Championships. The rowing park did receive $2.5 million in this year’s budget, money that survived Scott’s veto pen.
The Senate veto overrides still must be approved by the House, where GOP leaders have questioned the need to roll back Scott’s line-item cuts. The two chambers are meeting in a special session to try and finalize the state budget after Scott vetoed the education portion of the budget.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran criticized Senate President Joe Negron over the proposed veto overrides in the run-up to the special session, saying he was prioritizing “pork barrel” spending.