After Veto: What's Next for USF Polytechnic?

USF Polytechnic now shares space with Polk State College in Lakeland
LAKELAND (2010-6-14) -

Polk County and USF officials say they're still fully committed to building a new USF Polytechnic campus, even after losing all construction funding to the Governor's veto pen.

As Polk County tries to revive itself through new, high-tech, high-wage jobs, the hopes of the region have rested in large part on construction of the new Polytechnic campus of the University of South Florida.

Gov. Charlie Crist had been dropping hints of a veto, saying in one interview that legislators were "spending like crazy". But his elimination of the $46 million for construction still came as a kick in the stomach to local officials.

"We couldn't have been more disappointed,"said Kathleen Munson, the president of the Lakeland Area Chamber of Commerce.

Munson called the USF Polytechnic "one of the most important economic development projects in many, many years."

Other supporters were less diplomatic. Representative Seth McKeel of Lakeland called the veto "mean-spirited and personally motivated." The "personal" part refers primarily to Crist's ongoing feud with State Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales, who has fought for construction of the USF-Poly campus for 12 years.

"This isn't a game," said Alexander. "This isn't a process to be used for one-upsmanship and gamesmanship, and that's in fact what he [Crist] did. He vetoes a whole series of things that from a policy perspective are clearly inconsistent, and the only explanation is that he did it in a politically self-serving way."

It's true that Crist protected some projects of his allies while vetoing projects of his foes. Also, his move to become an Independent has soured his relationship with state Republicans.

However,Gov. Crist could also make a case for the funding veto. The University originally requested -- and the Board of Governors had approved -- $10 million for capital projects. But the Florida Senate -- where Alexander is budget chief -- bumped that number up to $46 million.

The extra money accelerated the first phase of USF Polytechnic construction -- plus added a pharmacy school and a wellness center. Even if Crist only wanted to veto the additional money added in the Senate, he didn't have that option. Thus, the entire amount was lost.

Despite his veto of construction money, Crist approved an increase in operating funds for USF Polytechnic, allowing it to double the size of its faculty.

That's recurring funding, says USF spokesman Michael Hoad. Plus, Hoad says, there's still enough money to continue construction on the new campus...for now.

But if there's another veto next year, Hoad says, it could be the last straw.

"It's the last chance," he said. " It's almost do or die. It's do... or have a serious problem next year."

Meanwhile, there's the issue of USF's new pharmacy school. It's received $6 million to start operating at USF's Tampa campus this year.

Alexander wants the pharmacy school's headquarters built at the new Polytechnic campus, and USF officials agree.

Alexander is confident that funding for USF Polytechnic will succeed, especially with a new governor next year.

"It's going to happen, it's just a matter of time," said Alexander. "I'm quite certain that any reasonable-minded Governor, any of the candidates that are out there today, would support the effort."

Alexander says a special session of the legislature might also give lawmakers an opportunity to overturn Crist's veto.

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