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Moffitt, Merck plan hits a snag

A legislator is "leery" of releasing $15-million for the venture.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published January 25, 2007


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TALLAHASSEE - A state senator on Wednesday single-handedly stalled plans to spend $15-million in public money to help Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Research Center team with the pharmaceutical giant Merck Corp. in a new cancer research venture.

Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, persuaded the Legislative Budget Commission to defer a request by Gov. Charlie Crist's office to allocate $15-million in economic development funds for the project.

"I'm very leery," said Garcia, who co-chairs the budget panel. " 'Pay us now and we'll do great work, and then we'll do the best for the people of Florida' - I want to know exactly what that means ... Once we release the money, it's gone."

Garcia had a three-page list of questions that he said have not been answered by Enterprise Florida Inc., the state's economic development arm.

They included the size of city and county contributions to the project, a new for-profit Moffitt subsidiary called M2GEN that will look for new ways to tailor cancer treatments to individual patients.

"The questions haven't been answered to the degree that they've been asked," Garcia said.

Hillsborough County commissioners have also raised questions about the project in light of up to $28-million in cash and land they are asked to contribute to the deal. Commissioners are particularly concerned about the comparatively modest $500,000 the city of Tampa is pitching in, and about a yet-to-be-detailed second phase that could be much more costly to taxpayers.

Commissioner Ken Hagan, who joined former Gov. Jeb Bush in announcing the project but has been among those raising concerns about the details, noted that it has only been a few weeks since the project was announced. He expressed surprise that legislators were sounding alarms.

Enterprise Florida president and CEO John Adams said he was confident the commission would approve the $15-million next month.

Stuart Rogel, chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional job creation agency, vowed to cater to lawmakers' requests.

The Legislative Budget Commission is a 14-member panel of Senate and House members that approves midyear spending changes that are not part of the annual state budget.

The item on the panel's agenda was to transfer $15-million from the state's Quick Action Closing Fund for an unnamed "economic development project currently under negotiation that is expected to be closed over the next 30 days." By law, the details of the venture are not public, but legislators confirmed that it was the project between Moffitt and Merck.

The $15-million request is expected to be considered again at the panel's next meeting in February. Last month, Bush unveiled the venture and pledged $15-million in state incentive money. The expenditure requires legislative approval.

The state-funded cancer institute and the world's second-largest drug maker have pledged to create at least 165 jobs paying an average salary of $80,000.

Times staff writers James Thorner and Bill Varian contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.

[Last modified January 25, 2007, 00:38:59]


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