TALLAHASSEE — A $50 million earmark for the Jackson Laboratory remains in the mix as budget negotiators plan to meet over the weekend to craft a compromise $68 billion state budget.
So far, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, remains hopeful funding for the Maine-based lab will be approved. Richter said Friday the Senate spending plan contains $50 million for the research institute, which has expressed interest in expanding in Collier County, near Ave Maria University.
“Things are moving forward as they should and I remain encouraged,” Richter said.
Richter said the House spending plan does not have specific language earmarking money for Jackson, but has included a lump-sum amount for economic development efforts that could be used for that purpose.
Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told the Daily News on Friday evening that the project is still very much alive in both chambers and he plans “to do everything possible to bring it to fruition.”
“Most people in the Legislature know what an important economic asset this would provide," said Rivera, whose district includes portions of eastern Collier County. “There are many options available for funding.”
Plans call for the budgets to be merged by Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and House Speaker Larry Cretu, R-Ocala, on Sunday or Monday, when they hammer out the most contentious issues separating the two chambers’ spending plans. Those schedules assume no major blow-up in budget talks, which is always a possibility.
Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples said he’s also optimistic, but said the next few days will tell if the money remains available. Grady said he’s been in daily contact with House leaders, including Rivera, and says the project is still very much alive.
“We’ll find out in the next day or two if there is specific language in the budget,” Grady said.
Local officials are waiting to see if state help will bolster their efforts to convince the genetic researcher to expand operations in Florida.
Collier Commissioner Fred Coyle, who was appointed by the county board to take the lead on the Jackson project, said the funding request to the state will probably get resolved this weekend.
Even so, if it remains on the drawing board into a final budget, the final resolution would be with the governor a few weeks away.
“That doesn’t keep us from trying to work on the project,” he said.
With respect to the county’s prospects of coming up with a match of $50 million initially, Coyle said he wants the state’s commitment and what Jackson will bring to the table before divulging what the county can do.
“I don’t want to be the first to put my cards on the table,” he said. “We will sit at a meeting and work it out, then have the public hearings what we are thinking about. It is an extremely complex process that must be managed in a business-like manner.”
Coyle said he’s optimistic the state money will come through.
Collier Commissioner Jim Coletta said he’s been working closely with Rivera’s spokesman, John Norman, and Barron Collier Co.’s vice president of real estate, Blake Gable, and had traveled to Tallahassee for several days last week to discuss the funding.
“I can’t find any resistance at all,” Coletta said. “Trying to find anyone opposed to it is impossible. So everybody needs to keep their nose the grindstone and keep pushing for it.”
Coletta didn’t expect any opposition because other labs throughout the state that fight for the same funding are supportive because they all work as a network of labs.
“They expected to have this wrapped up on Wednesday or Thursday and here it’s Friday,” Coletta said of legislators. “So if they are working through the weekend on it, I’m appreciative of that.”
Keith Arnold, Collier County’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, said the Jackson money and project is a big issue and a unique opportunity that is simply running up against the bad economy, with lawmakers having to deal with funding for health care, education and retirement benefits for state employees. If it doesn’t happen this year, the interest would remain strong for next year, he said.
“There’s nothing to indicate the enthusiasm for that project would wane if not negotiated this year,” Arnold said.
Tammie Nemecek, president and chief executive officer of the Economic Development Council in Collier County, said officials are continuing to work with legislators.
“The timing is still uncertain as the Legislature continues to work through the entire budget,” Nemecek said. “Our community continues to remain encouraged by the support we are receiving and thankful for all the work in Tallahassee and locally to help bring this opportunity to the state of Florida and Collier County.”
Staff writers Liz Freeman and Aisling Swift contributed to this report.