No funding for ‘political activism’

When Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed $35 million in funding for a potential Tampa Bay Rays spring training complex in Pasco County, was he also sending a political message about gun safety activism?

The governor didn’t dismiss the idea on Friday, a day after redlining $3.1 billion from the state’s next budget.

Days after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, the team announced a $50,000 donation to the gun violence prevention group Everytown for Gun Safety. It also tweeted out gun violence facts and statistics during a game against the New York Yankees, who did the same.

“This cannot become normal,” the team stated. “We cannot become number. We cannot look the other way. We all know, if nothing changes, nothing changes.”

Related: For one night, Rays and Yankees use social media to confront tragedy

Asked about the Rays’ tweets and his subsequent veto, DeSantis made clear that he doesn’t “support giving taxpayer dollars to professional sports stadiums, period,” and “that was just the decision that was going to be made.” But he added that private companies shouldn’t get state money to propagate political views of any stripe.

“Companies are free to engage or not engage in whatever discourse they want, but clearly, it’s inappropriate to be doing taxpayer dollars for professional sports stadiums,” he said. “It’s also inappropriate to subsidize political activism of a private corporation. So I think either way, it’s not appropriate.”

The Rays declined to comment on the veto or any possible political motivations behind it.

It wouldn’t be out of character for DeSantis to make such a big budget cut over politics, said Tim McClain, president and CEO of the Greater Pasco Chamber of Commerce.

“We definitely know our governor takes strong stances,” McClain said. “He has opinions one way or the other. And most of the time, they’re very supportive, very pro-business, and something that we always like to support. … Obviously when you’re on the losing side, you don’t like it; when you’re on the winning side, you do like it. I still respect it. That’s his job. He has to take his stances.”

Related: Tampa Bay vetoes ‘disappointing,’ say area leaders

The Odessa sports complex funding wasn’t the only Pasco project that saw a veto. DeSantis also struck nearly $700 million spread over 30 years for a Central Pasco health science park to be operated by the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute. That project is still happening. The sports complex, McClain said, likely won’t.

“I don’t think there’s any other avenues,” he said. “The trick is the next session, to see what happens. It’s not the first time line-item vetoes have taken projects away, and then they show up a year or two later. As we all know in the world of politics, it takes a lot of things to make things like that happen. I think we were in the best situation we ever could have to have something like that happen.”

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That included strong backing from local delegates, including Senate President Wilton Simpson, who did not respond to a message seeking comment on Friday.

On Friday, DeSantis said the sports complex project didn’t serve a broad enough purpose to merit state funding.

“What we try to do with these projects is doing things that really are benefitting the community as a whole, more so than maybe one specific interest or one specific company,” he said.

McClain said that wasn’t the case, as the complex would have hosted more than the Rays — community events, youth tournaments, possibly even a minor league team.

“It’s something that would help the community,” he said. “We’re known as the Florida Sports Coast. That would have continued to validate that.”

Related: Rays spring training plan in Pasco lands $35 million from lawmakers

Instead, developers will build something else on that property.

“You know what’s going to happen,” McClain said. “Now the land’s going to open up, and it’s going to be 2,000, 4,000 homes.”

Times staff writers Marc Topkin and CT Bowen contributed to this story.

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