After a personal meeting, and a $10,000 donation, DeSantis approved a $10 million earmark
Records show a Palm Beach County museum got $10 million in taxpayer money after a key leader met personally with Ron DeSantis and gave the governor $10,000.
This is Seeking Rents, a newsletter and podcast devoted to producing original journalism — and lifting up the journalism of others — that examines the many ways that businesses influence public policy across Florida, written by Jason Garcia. Seeking Rents is free to all. But please consider a voluntary paid subscription, if you can afford one, to help support our work.
Last June, just a few days after he signed last year’s state budget into law, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the Cox Science Center and Aquarium in West Palm Beach to promote funding for Everglades restoration and other environmental programs.
During his appearance, the Republican governor boasted about how he’d just set a new state record by vetoing more than $3 billion of earmarks from the state spending plan. But he also highlighted one line item that he’d approved: $10 million for the Cox Science Center and Aquarium.
The museum, DeSantis noted, is “very popular with the summer camp kids, very good for education.”
“That’s part of the reason why the budget we just signed last week actually has $10 million to help expand the facility,” he said.
But another part of the reason may be that a key Science Center booster is also a big DeSantis donor who records show personally lobbied the governor to support the project — and who had just given DeSantis another $10,000.
The Cox project offers a case study in how earmarks often get funded in Tallahassee, where people and organizations from around the state first lobby lawmakers to give them money — and then lobby the governor to let them keep it.
More behind-the-scenes maneuverings are happening right now, as DeSantis prepares to sign the new state budget that the Florida Legislature approved earlier this month.
DeSantis, who may announce his latest round of budget vetoes just before launching his campaign for president, has plenty of potential targets: The new $117 billion spending plan includes more than 1,500 earmarks — including another $5 million for the Cox Science Center and Aquarium.
The price of veto insurance
Founded more than 60 years ago as the South Florida Science Museum, the Cox Science Center and Aquarium changed its name in November 2021 following a $20 million gift from Howard and Wendy Cox. Howard Cox is partner in a Massachusetts-based venture capital firm that was an early investor in companies like Facebook and Airbnb, though the couple has a home in Palm Beach.
The donation kicked off an ambitious expansion plan for the museum, which set a goal of raising $45 million and becoming one of the largest aquariums in Florida.
Though it sits next to the wealthiest community in Florida — just across the water from Palm Beach’s “Billionaire’s Row” — the Cox center immediately turned to Florida taxpayers for help.
In late January of last year, shortly after Florida lawmakers gaveled open the 2022 legislative session, the science center hired Ballard Partners, the Tallahassee lobbying firm led by one of DeSantis’ biggest political fundraisers. One of the firm’s lobbyists immediately submitted a $10 million budget request to the Florida Senate.
While it wooed lawmakers, the Cox center also courted DeSantis.
Howard Cox was already substantial DeSantis supporter. Campaign-finance records show he donated $15,000 to DeSantis’ former political committee during the 2018 campaign for governor, plus another $21,000 after he took office.
But another science center leader decided to become a DeSantis donor, too. Records show Lew Crampton, the chairman of the Cox center’s board of trustees, gave $3,000 to the governor’s re-election campaign on Feb. 7.
One week later, DeSantis agreed to meet personally with Cox, Crampton and others from the Cox center at the Governor’s Office in Tallahassee.
The purpose of the Feb. 14, 2022, meeting was to discuss funding for the science center, according to a briefing document prepared by the governor’s staff ahead of the meeting. The document was obtained as part of a public-records request Seeking Rents made more than a year ago for records related to DeSantis’ work during the 2022 legislative session. The Governor’s Office only recently began to fulfill that request, and it still has not yet produced all the records.
Separate emails from the Governor’s Office confirm the meeting with the Cox center representatives took place, although it’s not clear what precisely was said. Representatives for the Cox center did not respond to requests for comment.
But about three months later — after lawmakers agreed to fund the $10 million request and just as the governor was deciding which budget projects to veto — records show that Howard Cox and Lew Crampton donated to DeSantis once again.
Crampton gave $5,000 to the governor’s former political committee on May 1. Cox gave another $10,000 on May 5.
DeSantis ultimately announced his budget decisions on June 2, sparing the Cox center from his veto pen. A week later, the governor used the aquarium as a backdrop to tout his commitment to environmental causes.
And just a few months after that, Howard Cox gave DeSantis another $60,000.
More decisions ahead
DeSantis’ next wave of budget vetoes could be announced any day. The governor is widely expected to launch a campaign for president soon, and he’ll likely want to have the state budget wrapped up before he does.
Like last year’s budget, the new state spending plan is filled with scores of earmarks that could make for inviting veto targets — but which are also important to influential interests.
There’s $5 million for a road in Pasco County serving a cancer-research campus that is anchoring a housing subdivision under development by Lennar Corp. There’s $9.9 million and change for a road in Orange County that would support a housing subdivision by Tavistock Development Co. And there’s $11 million for sewer infrastructure in Hendry County that would help a cargo airport project led by U.S. Sugar Corp. and others.
There’s also $1 million to have a South Florida seaport buy radiation-detection equipment from a Jacksonville company. There’s $1.5 million to have DeSantis’ state military force contract with an Israeli company that develops cell phone-hacking technology. And there are budget instructions that could steer a lucrative emergency-management warehouse contract to a Texas-based vendor.
And then there’s another $5 million for the Cox center, which recently doubled its fundraising goal from $45 million to $85 million. That came after the museum picked up more deep-pocketed supporters — including Ken Griffin, the hedge-fund manager and DeSantis mega-donor who recently gave the Cox center an $8 million gift.