(TNS) -- University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee leaders are scrambling to figure out how they will keep a popular science program created in collaboration with Mote Marine Laboratory after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $3 million earmarked for the effort.
The veto came as a shock. The funding was supposed to be recurring and school officials expected it to continue. They were confident enough in the appropriation that they built new classrooms at Mote in 2013 and hired new professors. Students already are enrolled in the program for next year.
But last week Scott zeroed out the money for a program that has allowed USF Sarasota-Manatee to offer its first science degree, a bachelor's in biology. The governor said the school has enough money to fund the program independent of the earmark.
Leaders at Mote and USFSM reacted to the decision with a mixture of surprise and disappointment.
Mote president and CEO Michael Crosby noted in a statement that the program was "designed to address a critical Florida priority: educating the next generation in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields to fill and create high-tech, high-impact jobs."
Scott has frequently talked about the importance of supporting STEM programs, even drawing criticism in 2011 for saying the state should focus more on STEM and less on programs such as anthropology.
The USFSM veto is a big financial blow for the school — it represents 14 percent of its total state funding — and one that strikes at the heart of the growing institution's strategy to evolve beyond a commuter campus and into a more traditional four-year university with an identity independent of the USF campus in Tampa. That means offering a full range of degrees at the campus near the Sarasota-Manatee county line, which is accredited as a separate academic institution.
USFSM officials have pushed to establish more science and technology offerings based on input from community leaders. The state funding for the Mote partnership pays for a number of university professors. It also pays Mote scientists to teach courses ($483,031 of the $3 million went directly to Mote), funds research opportunities for USFSM undergraduates at Mote and pays for classroom materials.
Demand to participate in the student research program "far exceeds the capacity for slots that are available," Crosby wrote. The biology program is USFSM's fastest-growing degree.
The governor's rationale
In his veto letter, Scott pointed to USFSM's $20.6 million in state funding to argue the school "has the ability to fund these initiatives."
The school did get a new $1.3 million earmark of nonrecurring funding this year. It can be used for "programs of strategic importance," including science programs such as the Mote partnership.
But using nonrecurring money to pay for expenses such as salaries is a risky proposition. And the earmark that survived Scott's veto pen does not come close to making up the $3.3 million he cut from the school, including $50,000 that funded a separate partnership with the South Florida Museum and $250,000 for the Circus Arts Conservatory.
USFSM released a statement Monday saying "there is no doubt these cuts will have a serious impact on our ability to deliver the high-quality programs and partnerships to our community."
But school officials added that "we value our partnerships with Mote and others throughout the region and are committed to the short- and long-term success of each of our programs." School leaders are discussing how to keep the Mote partnership going and where they might find alternative funding sources.
The partnership between Mote and USFSM wasn't the only ongoing program Scott axed in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The governor also rejected $1 million for an emergency room diversion effort in Manatee that has regularly received state dollars. It pays to help people get preventative care through MCR Health Services. And he eliminated a program that had been in place at the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine's Lakewood Ranch campus since its inception in 2004. It helped pay tuition for in-state students in the hopes they will stick around and alleviate the state's doctor shortage. It was set to be funded at $1.7 million this year.
State Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, pointed out that the governor has taken an "inconsistent position" by suddenly vetoing recurring money for programs that he let stand in the past.
"It is a bit unusual and I would like to understand his reasoning there," Galvano said when asked about Scott cutting recurring funding.
Galvano noted that Florida's public university system received a large boost in funding this year overall, although USFSM officials said the school did not receive an increase in recurring base funding.
"With the amount of increase in higher ed across the board, including aid for private institutions, he was a little more liberal with his veto pen," Galvano said.
Some of the vetoes may be payback for local lawmakers supporting an effort to eliminate taxpayer-funded business incentives and cut tourism marketing, two programs Scott strongly supports.
State Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, and state Rep. Julio Gonzalez, R-Venice, both voted against Scott on the issue. But Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, strongly supported Scott in the incentives debate and advocated for the USFSM funding.
"I think the local delegation, including myself, was to blame for not convincing Gov. Scott that was worthy enough to keep," Gruters said.
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