At a campaign-style event, Gov. Rick Scott made himself Florida’s new veto king Thursday when he axed $615 million from the state budget before signing it.
The biggest target of the veto pen: A $305 million reduction for land buys. But the money might not be real because the state would only earn it from the future sale of surplus lands. The college system also bore the brunt of the reduction, with Scott vetoing tens of millions of construction projects. He also cut hundreds of millions of relatively small earmarks inserted by top legislators to benefit their hometown districts.
Scott called on his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature to plow the vetoed money back into the classroom. Scott praised lawmakers for balancing the budget in tough times, but then subtly swiped at them for doing the bidding of "special interests" by packing the budget with so many hometown projects.
"I'm sure most Floridians believe as I do that spending 250-thousand dollars on education materials for our kids is more important that spending a quarter of a million dollars to learn how to catch rainwater," Scott said, an apparent reference to what he listed as a "Water Savings Plan" that he cut from the budget.
"Where I'm from, rainwater can be caught with a two dollar bucket."
Unmentioned by Scott: He called for even bigger K-12 cuts than the Legislature was willing to deliver.
The news of the vetoes elicited applause from the conservative crowd assembled in The Villages retirement community, where the political newcomer hosted what he billed as a “celebration” of his “jobs budget.” To underscore the campaign-like flavor, the event was underwritten and broadcast by the Republican Party of Florida.
One group, The Villages Democratic Club, was barred from the event, told by a staffer of Scott’s that it was a “private event.” Other staffers and Republican operatives scoured the crowd and had sheriffs deputies remove those who wore liberal-looking badges.
Democrats couldn’t help but note the irony that Scott was talking about job creation at the same time he signed a budget that eliminates almost 4,500 state-worker jobs and could therefore make matters worse
“If he means the ‘jobs budget’ is killing jobs, then it’s an accurate title,” said Democratic House leader Ron Saunders of Key West.
The job cuts were part of a one-two punch felt by state workers, who will now be required to kick in an additional three percent of their salaries to fund their retirements. Nearly every government service was cut: healthcare for the poor, schools, the environment and courts.
The budget, passed May 7 by the Legislature, now weighs in at roughly $69.1 billion after the $615 million in vetoes. It’s about $1.3 billion smaller than the current budget, which expires at the end of the fiscal year on June 30.
Lawmakers actually cut more in anticipated spending –about $3.7 billion -- than meets the eye because Medicaid rolls boomed in the down economy, putting more pressure on them to trim spending. Also, property taxes that help fund education decreased when property values plummeted. At the same time, courts were handling more foreclosure cases and prison costs continued to increase.
Despite all the pressures to cut and save, legislators still set aside about $300 million for tax cuts and business incentives. It was a far cry from the $2.4 billion in tax-and-fee cuts that Scott called for, but legislators made sure to give some tax relief to ensure he didn’t veto the budget.
Scott was placated with a roughly $37 million corporate-income tax cut that saved businesses about an average of about $1,100.
Legislators also socked away about $2.4 billion in savings, determined to avoid a fourth straight year of budget cuts. And they sprinkled at least $200 million on hometown projects, nicknamed “turkeys” by some.
Some, such as a $5 million regatta center in Sarasota, were tough to justify in a year when state workers and teachers faced layoffs.
"Special interests probably aren’t happy with the tough choices I made," Scott said, "but I am confident everyone can agree that funding for our children and students is more important than pleasing Tallahassee’s special interests.”