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License plate bill could end FAU gravy train

Currently, all Protect Wild Dolphins and Protect Florida Whales tag fees head to FAU. That could change.

A Senate bill changing the rules on specialty license plates could be amended to send money collected through sales of the Protect Wild Dolphins and Protect Florida Whales tags to the actual organizations working to save those animals.

The dolphin tag has been around since 1998, and the whale tag was approved for sale in 2003, with the funds paid out by Florida drivers originally intended for Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution.

Through 2007, HBOI disbursed the tag fees statewide and to several stranding organizations, which was the intent of the Legislature. Stranding organizations are groups that help save dolphins and whales, including when they beach themselves on Florida shores.

That same year HBOI, which has since changed its name to Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation, became part of Florida Atlantic University, and the flow of money to stranding networks was cut off and all revenue was limited to benefit FAU.

The merger had the support of the Legislature. As HBOI puts it: “The Florida state Legislature blessed the agreement with $44.6 million in campus renovation funding, and today the work — which includes removal of the abandoned structures, renovation of other buildings, and new construction — is in high gear.”

The change was a major one. FAU didn’t receive any whale and dolphin tag money before acquiring HBOI — between 2002 and 2006 a plurality of that cash, about $1.2 million, also went to Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota.

More than 10 other entities, including the University of Florida, the University of South Florida, Florida State University, Mote Marine, Hubbs and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium received a significant share of the funds under the old model, which was reviewed by a grant approval committee.

Additionally, many of the statewide stranding organizations the tag fees helped handled several dozen strandings a year, while HBOI typically handles about six.

The organizations formerly funded by the tags say it was never intended to solely benefit FAU, and a lot of them are supporting an amendment to SB 1104 that would force the institute to share the wealth. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Aaron Bean, has cleared one committee and is awaiting a hearing in the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism, and Economic Development.

The whale and dolphin tags aren’t the only ones funding FAU, either.

The university also has its own FAU plate, while HBOI/FAU rakes in additional funds from the Aquaculture and Save our Seas tags, totaling more than $1.2 million annually.

HBOI financial statements show the tag funds are being used to pay the salaries of FAU faculty, including “excellence” incentives, rather than directly saving dolphins and whales.

Furthermore, HBOI’s financial reports show a large portion of the funds it has collected are sitting in the bank.

“At the time of that audit, it was noted over $2,000,000 in plate funds were being held as yet unexpended by FAU,” the 2018 report states. “It was also noted that after analysis of the past year, there had been at least $1,000,000.00 in total plate funds held at any given time.”

Also, in the 2016 fiscal year, HBOI/FAU suffered $1.2 million in investment losses, causing them to change the way they distribute their grants and to hold $2 million to cover their losses. That year, they said they spent all the money on the programs, however, statements indicate they only spent $1.3 million.

The tag money issue has been raised before.

In 2014, reports described HBOI’s rescue program as “near collapse” and the university was accused of firing marine mammal expert Stephen McCulloch, who was behind the specialty tags, so it could more tightly control plate revenues.

Also, HBOI has never built the marine mammal teaching hospital, closed the marine mammal stranding center after spending $2 million to build it, lost the dolphin health assessment permit and the 20-year Photo Identification dolphin field study program has been terminated.

The statewide stranding networks have been excluded from any support from the two specialty plates designed to help them and they are supporting the amendment filed by One Ocean One Health, to provide a more equitable distribution of the proceeds from the Protect Wild Dolphins and Protect Florida Whales plates, leaving the Aquaculture and “Shark” plates with HBOI/FAU, for now.

Written By

Drew Wilson covers legislative campaigns and fundraising for Florida Politics. He is a former editor at The Independent Florida Alligator and business correspondent at The Hollywood Reporter. Wilson, a University of Florida alumnus, covered the state economy and Legislature for LobbyTools and The Florida Current prior to joining Florida Politics.

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