Sarasota fetal alcohol clinic loses $100K thanks to Gov. Scott

Gov. Rick Scott signs a bill.

Add another entry to the list of controversial Rick Scott line item vetoes: $100,000 for a fetal alcohol diagnostic and intervention clinic here in Sarasota.

The Florida Legislature approved the funding for The Florida Center for Early Childhood program after tense negotiations between the House and Senate and strong advocacy by the Suncoast’s legislative delegation. Florida Center President and CEO Kathyrn Shea credits state Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, and Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota, for their work securing the additional $100,000 for the program this year. The money was intended to offset declining county and grant support.

When the budget was passed with the $100,000 intact, Shea says she had a “premature party.”

“I was literally dancing in the streets and singing through the office,” she says. “And never in a million years thought the governor would veto it.”

But veto it Scott did, killing $100,000 for a program that diagnoses fetal alcohol spectrum disorders and trains others in how to spot FASD-related disabilities. The program — which launched in 2005 with budget support from both the Legislature and then-Gov. Jeb Bush — is “the only statewide clinic of its kind,” according to Shea.

Shea says she’s “very grateful” for the $280,000 that survived Scott’s round of vetoes, but calls the governor’s veto a “huge hit” to the fetal alcohol program. The waiting list for the clinic’s services already stretches into December; Shea says that list will only grow longer.

Scott’s veto is hardly his only controversial budget decision this year. He also eliminated $1.5 million for rape crisis centers, a cut that ignited strong criticism.

In the same budget, the governor approved $5 million for the rowing facility at Sarasota’s Nathan Benderson Park, named for a man whose son co-hosted a fundraiser for Scott less than two weeks before Scott made his budget announcement. Benderson Management Services donated $25,000 to Scott’s 2014 reelection bid in April.

Shea points out that the fetal alcohol clinic was the only Sarasota budget item not included in Florida Tax Watch’s list of wasteful spending projects, which would normally be considered a positive sign. The rowing center was named a “turkey” by the influential organization.

A representative from the governor’s office told Shea after the veto was announced that “line items were vulnerable,” but Shea says she hasn’t received a specific explanation for why the money was cut.

“In years past, the governor’s office has called me and asked me for information,” Shea says. Not this year: No one from the governor’s office reached out to Shea or her organization before the veto.

Scott’s office did not respond to questions from the Sarasota News Leader. In explaining some of his other budget vetoes, Scott has emphasized the importance of organizations serving a statewide need, rather than a regional one.

The Florida Center does serve the state. Shea says families travel from all over Florida — from the Panhandle to Key West — for an opportunity to meet with the clinic’s diagnostic team. Seventy percent of the clinic’s diagnostic work serves families outside of Sarasota County, and 80 percent of its training programs are for folks outside the area, according to Shea. Because of Scott’s decision, the number of assessments the center is able to perform will drop by “almost 20” from 55 last year. The number of training events also will decrease.

For now, all Shea can do is gear up for the 2013 legislative session, and hope Scott comes around. “I think mistakes were made,” she says.

Listen to Shea discuss Scott’s veto during episode 30 of the WSLR program Maternally Yours.