FROM THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
By BRANDON LARRABEE AND JIM TURNER
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 15, 2016……….In a surprise move, Gov. Rick Scott announced Tuesday that he would sign the largest budget in state history while using his line-item veto relatively sparingly, defusing a potential showdown with state lawmakers.
Scott said he would sign the previously $82.3 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1 while slicing a little more than $256.1 million in local projects and other spending initiatives. The announcement, which came on the same day as the state’s presidential primary elections, was unexpected. Scott generally doesn’t announce specific intentions on the budget until lawmakers officially send it to him for his approval — something that hasn’t happened.
By tipping his hand early, though, Scott dispelled speculation that he would veto a raft of projects in retribution for lawmakers gutting his main priorities during the legislative session, which ended last week. That essentially ended talk that House and Senate leaders would return to Tallahassee to override his decisions.
“Before I came into office, Florida was raising taxes and fees and there is no doubt that I will always want more tax cuts and more jobs,” Scott said in a statement released by his office Tuesday. “I look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to find more ways next year to return money back to families all across Florida.”
The budget bumps up per-student spending on public schools by 1 percent, moving it to a record amount. It spends more than $713.5 million on education construction projects and funds $151 million for restoration of the Everglades and an area lawmakers are calling the Northern Everglades.
However, legislators largely rejected much of what Scott wanted in a tax-cut package, though he used the numbers to declare victory on his 2014 re-election campaign promise to cut taxes by $1 billion over his first two years in office. Scott’s request for a $250 million “Florida Enterprise Fund” of business incentives was zeroed out.
That led some lawmakers to fear the worst. Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Scott’s vetoes added up to about half of what Lee had expected. The budget chief noted that “a substantial increase in city and county projects” have been worked into the state budget.
“The governor is right to go after a lot of those line items where there is no compelling state interest,” he said. “I feel like there’s a real role for the governor in this process, and it sounds like, just from a first glance, that he has been very measured.”
Among Scott’s line-item vetoes were $55 million swept from an economic-development trust fund and used to pay for other items that will still be funded. That means he removed about $201 million in spending authority from the plan.
Still, that economic development money could not spent for its original purpose unless lawmakers approve a budget amendment.
In fact, the amount of money vetoed from the budget falls in the lower half of yearly erasures in Scott’s term. The governor cut more than he did in 2012 or 2014, but less than he did in 2011, 2013 or 2015.
House leaders were also pleased with the announcement. Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and his expected successor — House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes — issued statements applauding Scott.
“Although I do not agree with every decision he has made, the governor’s vetoes provide an important check on the budget process.Â … I look forward to working with Governor Scott over the next two years, and I know that together we will continue to produce better, smarter and leaner budgets,” Corcoran said.
Crisafulli said Scott “has used his veto in a prudent and fair manner.”
Few of the lines struck from the budget were big-ticket items. The biggest cut was nearly $15 million for construction of the Center of Innovation Technology Education at Eastern Florida State College. The only other vetoes of $10 million or more were the elimination of $11 million to build a performing arts center at Pasco-Hernando State College, and the removal of $10 million for “quiet zone” improvements near railway lines.
But several small-bore projects were also whacked from the plan. The vetoes included items like $3 million for the Historic Cocoa Village Playhouse parking structure; $1 million for the St. Johns River Ferry; $200,000 for youth crime prevention programs in West Park; and $25,000 for college prep and science, technology, engineering and math — or “STEM” — programs for girls.
As part of his message, Scott — who has pushed for colleges and universities in particular to focus on STEM education — listed the STEM project among several items he vetoed because “there is no identifiable statewide impact and school districts have the ability through historic funding ($7,178 per pupil) to implement these programs.”
While he appeared to leave bond funding for education construction projects standing, Scott slashed several of the Legislature’s specific proposals. In addition to the cuts at Eastern Florida State College and Pasco-Hernando State College, Scott removed $8 million to help Florida International University buy land and $8.3 million for the University of Central Florida that was to go to the Interdisciplinary Research and Incubator Facility and towards the renovation of its engineering building.
But Scott left in place $20 million to pay for the state share of a downtown Orlando campus for the University of Central Florida, a top priority of outgoing Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.
Scott cut almost $8.4 million in projects that lawmakers added to the spending plan at the last minute. The so-called sprinkle lists contained about $123.1 million in funding — but Scott’s vetoes of those projects were larger proportionally than his other cuts to the spending plan.
The governor also let at least one proposal that he had previously vetoed stand: a pay increase for some state firefighters, one of several priorities for Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
“With the support of the Florida Legislature and the governor, we are increasing pay for our wildland firefighters, supporting Florida citrus, protecting and growing Florida’s water supply, preserving Florida’s precious landscapes, promoting and defending Florida agriculture, protecting Floridians and much more,” Putnam said, in one of a string of statements from officials indicating the intrigue over the 2016 budget is over.
News Service of Florida senior writer Dara Kam contributed to this report.