Universities to gov: don't veto construction money

Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott is calling into question the 137-million lawmakers appropriated for state colleges and university building projects. As Sascha Cordner reports, universities from across the state say they hope the Governor does not take away the money.

Recently in a Cabinet meeting, Governor Rick Scott started questioning the state's director of bond finance Ben Watkins about the PECO fund, or the Public Education Capital Outlay fund.

Scott: "So where do you think the capacity is right now then?

Watkins: "Virtually zero, after the appropriation for the upcoming fiscal year. There is PECO included in this year's budget. With that authorization and with the authorization that had previously been authorized been the legislature and not yet issued, we're out of capacity, there is no future capacity."

They're referring to a fund that is taken from taxes on different types of utilities and communication services, such as cell phones. After a percentage is taken, it provides public universities in the state, Pre-k through 12, and community college system with money used to build different construction projects, including classrooms, laboratories, and research facilities.

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan says he and other public education officials were overjoyed when they originally heard public universities were going to receive PECO dollars.

"We were scheduled to receive zero in the state university system PECO fund, but because the legislature did some creative financing, they were able to cobble together just about 130 million dollars that will be allocated across the system for infrastructure, renovation, upkeep of existing facilities, and a series of facilities that were vetoed during the last legislative session."

University of Florida President Bernie Machen is looking forward to the PECO funds towards completing the university's first major research building away from their actual campus called Lake Nona Research and Academic facility.

Ed Poppell is UF's Vice President of Business Affairs and Economic Development. He says it's part of their two PECO projects right now. One is regarding Utilities and infrastructure, including air conditioning, and maintaining wastewater, and electrical lines.

"The second project is the Lake Nona Education facility, and this [PECO dollars] would allow us to complete that facility totally which under the current plan is not totally funded, and will not be able to be totally finished."

Machen says the center would led to the prevention, curing, and treatment of major diseases. But, without the PECO funds needed, the facility would not be completed.

University of South Florida's Governmental Relations Director Mark Walsh says all the public universities are hoping to convince the Governor to sign that part of the budget, so all Universities can use the funds for the projects.

"We've made contact through various channels whether they're letters and I've had stuff from USF and from outside support groups, and I think that same thing is being replicated by all Universities across the state because PECO is important to each of us. And, he hasn't indicated he is singling out any specific project. His comments have been more global in nature about bonding and whether the state can afford it. And, we believe it's within the state's bonding capacity to do this."

He says one of the biggest projects USF was looking to complete was the Polytechnic Campus in Polk County, that they have spent years trying to build. A recent study shows its total annual economic impact could be 3.2 billion dollars at its completion and could create about 36-thousand jobs. In the past, the funds for the facility have been vetoed before. But Walsh says they will continue to ask for the money, even though it means putting the project on hold for another year. But, he hopes the Governor realizes how important projects like the building of the Polytechnic Campus helps the economy.

"Our case has been the state really needs to get this project moving for its own benefit to transform our economy and slowing it down by yet another year is not helping educating any students, it's not helping diversifying the economy, it's not drawing in any other industries or companies that are attracted to these types of higher end ventures and research development that USF does throughout Tampa Bay and the entire state of Florida and beyond.

Chief of Staff for Florida A and M University Rosalind Fuse-Hall made the same claim, and says the PECO funds are essential for maintaining the excellence of all public universities.

"If there were no PECO dollars, it would be very difficult. So, it's hard to raise these kinds of dollars and there's just no other area because there is no other line item in the budget for this type of expenditure."

Several State Education Officials have sent in letters and e-mails to the Governor's office, including the Board of Governors Chairwoman Ava Parker, who recently wrote to Scott about how essential the PECO dollars are to the state. But, Governor Rick Scott may not be so convinced.

"If you look at one of the things I've been concerned about since I've come into office is the state's obligations. So, one of the things I'll be looking at is making sure that I understand, as I go through the process, where we are with our borrowing capacity under PECO."

Scott has until June 1st to sign or veto the 69.7 billion dollar budget.