From a multi-million dollar bike trail through Central Florida to creating a high-paying job at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, a broad array of local pet projects have been negotiated into the Legislature’s proposed budget.
Fueled by a $1.2 billion surplus and an impulse to please constituencies in their districts in an election year, House and Senate lawmakers have reached so many accords that few major ticket items remain unresolved.
One exception: $10 million the House is proposing to spend on SkyRise Miami, 1,000-foot-tall observation tower planned for downtown Miami. House and Senate negotiators agreed they’ve hit a wall during a Wednesday meeting and that the request will get “bumped” to the next level of decision making: the House and Senate Appropriation chairs, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.
“The issue with the Miami SkyRise is determining what role the state has in a project like that,” said incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “ An argument could be made that for infrastructure it’s consistent with other projects we’ve done, I think that’s open for discussion. But just a $10 million line item without really understanding how that will work, the higher bumps can decide a lot of that.”
Gardiner was successful in getting $15.5 million included in the legislative budget for the 275-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a series of bike and pedestrian trails from the Pinellas Trail in St. Petersburg to Titusville on the state’s Space Coast.
Last year, Gardiner, a cycling enthusiast, got $50 million included in the budget only to have it vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. Asked if he has assurances this time that Scott won’t veto the line item, Gardner sounded optimistic.
“There are no assurances of anything in life,” Gardiner said, adding that conversations with Scott and his office have “have all been very positive. We did a ground breaking in Titusville together on the Coast-to-Coast and I hope that’s a good indication that we’re on track.”
Gardiner’s counterpart in the House, Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, joked Tuesday night that the House agreed to the trail, but expected something in return.
On Wednesday morning, the Senate agreed to fund a number of projects that it had previously held out on, pleasing Hooper.
“You guys must have stayed up late,” Hooper told senators. “This is a generous offer.”
One winner was All Children’s Hospital. Senators agreed to match the House’s offer to spend $2 million for a chair in pediatric specialties. The money will be used to attract a top medical talent, Hooper said, that will encourage more talent to follow.
“This pediatric chair will bring a subgroup of specialists to a part of St. Petersburg that has become known as Medical City,” Hooper said. “The anchor of that is All Children’s. It’s very important to attract someone to that chair. It’s hard to explain to someone how this ties into economic development, but it does just that. Medical City will become one of the premier parts of St. Petersburg.”
Oldsmar BMX also snagged some state money. The House held to its proposal of spending $1.27 million on the bicycle motocross facility, forcing the Senate to increase first from nothing to $750,000, then, in the third round of negotiations, to $1.27 million.
“BMX is becoming an Olympic sport,” Hooper said when asked to justify the expense. “Oldsmar BMX has been working very hard to get a facility that is certified by the Olympics. This would be the only one on the east coast. We thought that was important.”
Senators also agreed to fund St. Petersburg’s 2020 Agenda, an anti-poverty program pushed by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman.
“He and his team impressed upon me what this money would be used for, how it would help St. Petersburg grow economically,” Hooper said.
As for SkyRise Miami, Hooper said he still believes it belongs in the budget.
“II don’t know if it’s shaky,” Hooper said. “Look, somebody had to convince me. My first question was, ‘What is SkyRise Miami? What is that?’ So when somebody can come in and sit down and show you that it’s not just an Eiffel Tower like tourist attraction, it does include some infrastructure and transportation opportunities and some economic development opportunities, so it’s a total package, and it’s a package of hundreds of millions of dollars, of which $10 million would be an appropriate amount that the state would provide. That’s a big ask and obviously that will have a discussion as it moves up.”