Polk County legislative delegation: where do they stand on Florida Polytechnic?

11:13 AM, Apr 1, 2013   |    comments
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TAMPA BAY, Fla. - As part of the ongoing coverage of Florida Polytechnic University's creation, 10 News reached out to all eight members of the Polk County legislative delegation for their opinions on the institution's future.

Last year, the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved Poly's independence (SB 1994), but 10 News has pointed out numerous challenges that await the school that has yet to recruit a student, hire a professor, or finish constructing a building.

TIMELINE: Florida Poly's controversial history

Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-SebringGrimsley represents six counties, including the southern half of Polk.  In an email, she told 10 News, "I believe Polytechnic has a role in meeting the market's demand in high-tech industries in Florida."  While Grimsley did not answer more specific questions about Poly's funding, she voted for SB 1994 last year while a member of the House.
UPDATE - Grimsley added the additional statement after this story's original publication - "There are a lot of ebbs and flows in the legislative process. To the extent that we can move the funding goalposts toward the original funding goals, we'll make a good case. At the same time, we're trying to ensure leaders in both chambers appreciate the awesome potential that an independently-governed school has for the state and the region."

Sen. Darren Soto, D-KissimmeeSoto represents portions of Orange and Osceola counties as well as the Haines City corner of Polk County.  He was the only current member of the Polk delegation to oppose the Polytechnic legislation last year (as a member of the House), but tells 10 News that now he represents part of Polk County, he supports meeting the funding needs of the university to protect the district's interests.  Soto preached patience with the brand-new institution and expressed his confidence in its new leadership.  "We need to at least give them a year or two to get up and running," he said.  "But...if we're talking (about problems in) two or three years, that would be a concern and we'd have to look into it."

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland - The majority of Stargel's district is the northern half of Polk Co, including Lakeland and Florida Polytechnic.  Stargel did not respond to 10 News' request for comment, but has been vocal in her support for the university.  She voted for SB 1994 while a member of the House last year, appeared at Poly booster events shortly after SB 1994 was signed, and was recently described by the Lakeland Ledger as a "prime defender of the new university in the absence of former Sen. J.D. Alexander."  She told the Ledger that she was "convinced that this is the right step for Florida in terms of economic development and jobs."

Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Wauchula Albritton's district includes the Southwest corner of Polk Co. but he did not respond to multiple requests for comment.  Last year, he voted for SB 1994 in March and, like Stargel, appeared at a Florida Poly Vision booster event in May.

Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City - Combee's district includes much of northern Polk Co. as well as Auburndale.  The freshman representative tells 10 News he wants the legislature to keep its financial commitment to the campus and sees a big opportunity for Polk County.  He said Poly's business-minded leaders need to be extremely conscious of their budget: "The idea of 'lets go get some more money' at this point is one they probably wish they hadn't made recently without a little more thought."  Combee says success will be a function of time: "I believe it can and will be successful, but probably a little later than we all would have liked to see, so need to have some patience there."

Rep. Mike La Rosa, R-St. CloudLa Rosa's distict covers much of Osceola County as well as Southeastern Polk.  The freshman representative did not respond to numerous requests for an interview, and has not been publicly vocal on the Polytechnic issues.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland - McKeel's district includes Greater Lakeland and he chairs both the House Appropriations Committee and Joint Legislative Budget Commission.  McKeel ignored numerous requests for an interview, including when 10 News wanted to ask about his sister's hiring at Polytechnic.  But McKeel, who voted for SB 1994, has been a vocal proponent for Polytechnic.  He was recently quoted in the Tampa Bay Times expressing support for trustee's vision for the university.  He told the Lakeland Ledger he supported the school's current path, but he opposed additional funding for construction.

Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven - Wood's district includes East/Central Polk but he did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.  Wood voted for SB 1994 last year but has generally remained out of the public discussions on Polytechnic.

Find 10 News Investigator Noah Pransky on Facebook or follow his updates on Twitter. Send your story tips to noah@wtsp.comFollow 10 News' extensive timeline on Florida Poly's controversial history here.

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