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U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz pointed blame at Republicans -- namely Gov. Rick Scott -- for not doing more to dish out dollars to prevent the spread of the Zika virus.
"While he seems to be saying out loud that he wants Congress and the president to provide more funding, he conveniently leaves out that he cut nearly $1 million dollars from mosquito control and closed down the state’s mosquito research lab a few years ago," Wasserman Schultz said at a town hall in Broward County on Aug. 8.
Wasserman Schultz is running for re-election in the Aug. 30 Democratic primary against first-time candidate Tim Canova.
Did Scott cut funding and close the state’s mosquito research lab? There’s a lot more nuance to this story than Wasserman Schultz lets on.
Mosquito control budget
The current Zika pandemic took off in May 2015, when Brazil reported cases in connection with more babies being born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly.
When Wasserman Schultz spoke, there had been a total of 422 Zika cases in South Florida, the majority acquired while traveling and 16 locally acquired.
Wasserman Schultz told reporters that she was referring to Scott’s budget decisions in 2011. Her spokesman pointed to an article in Politico that explained cuts to state aid to local mosquito control programs. That was Scott’s first budget year after he ran on a platform to slash spending amid the recession.
State budget records show that while Florida under Scott cut money to mosquito control his first two years, the state later raised it substantially:
2010-11: $2.2 million (Gov. Charlie Crist's last budget)
2011-12: $1.3 million (Scott’s first budget)
2012-13: $1 million
2013-14: $2.7 million
2014-15: $2.8 million
2015-16: $2.7 million
2016-17: $2.8 million
Jackie Schutz, a spokeswoman for Scott, said that he has invested more than $13.2 million in funding for mosquito prevention and control.
Separately, "Gov. Scott has allocated more than $26 million to combat Zika and will continue to allocate more if necessary," she said.
Wasserman Schultz’s claim about the closed lab relates to the Florida A&M University Public Health Entomology Research and Education Center in Panama City Beach. In 2011, Scott vetoed a one-time $500,000 appropriation for the center intended to keep it open after it had faced threats of closure.
The center, first opened in 1964, was referred to as the "mosquito lab" or PHEREC, and came up with ways to combat mosquitoes. It was once a part of a state department, but in the 1990s it became part of Florida A&M while still receiving state health department dollars and other grants.
In 2010 as Florida A&M was cutting millions of dollars from the university amid state cuts, it announced that PHEREC was on the chopping block.
Provost Cynthia Hughes Harris said at the time that the university decided to eliminate non-teaching units such as the mosquito lab.
In a last-ditch attempt to save the lab, researchers sought a one-time appropriation from the 2011 Legislature for $500,000 late in the budget process. Florida TaxWatch labeled it a "turkey," and Scott vetoed it as part of his $615 million in vetoes as the state was climbing out of the recession.
The lab still had $1.4 million -- enough to keep it open -- but the university chose to shutter it anyway, wrote Dr. John Smith, the center’s former director, in a Florida Mosquito Control Association newsletter.
"In fact, there were sufficient reserve funds to continue PHEREC for as much as two or three years without the legislative appropriation," Smith wrote. "Why FAMU did not allow this remains unclear."
Walter J. Tabachnick, at the time director of the Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory at the University of Florida’s site near Vero Beach, warned about the loss of dollars in a blog after the cuts.
"How can one quantify the loss of future opportunities to make progress and improvements in Florida mosquito control?" he wrote. "There will be future problems for which we will not have solutions, there will be lost opportunities to make mosquito control more effective, efficient, and environmentally proper."
However, Tabachnick who remains a professor at UF, told PolitiFact Florida that the decision to close the lab wasn’t by Scott.
"The decision to close PHEREC, to withdraw all funding, was made by Florida A&M, not the governor," he said.
Meanwhile, the state has funded research at a different university center. The Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory at UF has received $500,000 annually from the state since 2013-14.
That money is for research to develop and test formulations, application techniques, and procedures of pesticides and biological control agents to control mosquitoes that can cause public health or a nuisance.
Speaking to reporters after her town hall, Wasserman Schultz pointed the finger at Scott for the spread of Zika.
"He bears some responsibility in this problem that we are facing now since we are not as fully prepared as we could be if those cuts had not come down," she said.
But Tabachnick says it’s not so simple.
"There are no promises in investment in research," he said. "I don’t know what information we may have had or not. It’s like saying if we had more money in cancer, we would find a cure. I can’t say that."
Wasserman Schultz said that Scott "cut nearly $1 million dollars from mosquito control and closed down the state’s mosquito research lab a few years ago."
In 2011, the Legislature under Scott did cut about $1 million for mosquito control dropping the total to about $1.3 million and cut it again by about $300,000 the following year. But the state then increased the budget to about $2.7 million the next year and it has remained in that ballpark for four years.
Scott also vetoed a one-time appropriation of $500,000 in 2011 for a mosquito lab at FAMU, and the university then shut it down. But the center was already on the university’s chopping block, and the state has since funded another university’s lab.
We rate this claim Mostly False.
Florida Fiscal Portal, 2010-2016
Gov. Rick Scott, Veto list, 2011
Florida Mosquito Control Association, BuzzWords, July/August 2011
Florida TaxWatch, Turkey list, 2011
University of Florida, Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, Accessed Aug. 9, 2016
Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory, "Florida's Future is at Stake: The Status of the Florida Mosquito Control Research Program," July/August 2011
Tampa Tribune, "Lawmakers spare pet university projects," May 17, 2011
Herald Tribune, "Gov. Scott cuts funding for Bay's mosquito research center," (Accessed in Nexis) May 28, 2011
Tallahassee Democrat, "FAMU researchers hit by budget cuts," (Accessed in Nexis) July 21, 2009
Tallahassee Democrat, "FAMU may close mosquito center," (Accessed in Nexis) July 16, 2010
Politico, "Scott bashes feds over Zika funding, but slashed mosquito control money," Aug. 5, 2016
Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times, "For Gov. Rick Scott, Zika proves a hurricane-like test," Aug. 7, 2016
PolitiFact Florida, "Surprise! Faced with Zika, South Florida fosters a mess of mosquitoes," Aug. 5, 2016
Miami Herald Naked Politics blog, "Debbie Wasserman Schultz bashes Rick Scott, Paul Ryan at Zika town hall," Aug. 8, 2016
Interview, Michael Liquerman, U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz spokesman, Aug. 8, 2016
Interview, Jackie Schutz, Gov. Rick Scott spokeswoman, Aug. 8, 2016
Interview Walter J. Tabachnick, Professor, Florida Medical Entomology Laboratory Department of Entomology and Nematology University of Florida, Aug. 9, 2016
Interview, Shelly Redovan, Florida Mosquito Control Association executive director, Aug. 9, 2016
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