Signaling a newfound commitment to education, Gov. Rick Scott not only signed a budget that partially restores money cut from the budget last year but he approved a 5 percent increase in state and community college tuition after months of warning that he would accept no increase in cost-of-living for Floridians.
The $70 billion budget, approved at Cunningham Creek Elementary School, an A-school in St. Johns County, also dramatically reduces the number of projects vetoed this year. The governor eliminated $142.7 million from the legislature's 2012-13 spending plan, four times less than last year's $615 million in vetoes.
Among the vetoes this year: $500,000 for the Dan Marino Foundation Vocational School for disabled kids, $1.5 million for the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence and $100,000 for the Autism Center of Miami. Scott also vetoed $250,000 to provide security for the Oct. 22 presidential debate scheduled at Lynn University in Boca Raton and $500,000 for the Florida Aquarium. Download Final-Veto-List-4-17-12
He did not veto $5 million in the budget for a "world-class" rowing center in Sarasota.
The governor also approved $33 million for the potential new Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, but Scott remained coy whether he would sign or veto a separate bill that actually creates the university. Scott told reporters he would act on the separate USF Poly bill Friday.
"As governor, I must make choices every day that impact the lives of each and every Floridian," Scott said in his veto letter. "When making these choices I always consider the family of four that makes $40,000 a year and may be struggling to make ends meet. How does this impact their lives? These are their dollars we are spending, after all. When I went line by line through the budget, I asked myself, 'Is this the proper role of state government? Should we spend taxpayers' dollars for that purpose? And if so, what is the return on investment?'" Download Scott veto letter
Scott also proposed a deal to keep tuition increases at state universities to five percent. While he did not veto a tuition increase of up to 15 percent, he said he would lobby the Florida Board of Governors to keep any tuition hike to 5 percent.
Scott said he spent months visiting with students, students, teachers and business ownerse around the state and it was clear that "education, jobs and easing the regulatory burden were top priorities for Floridians."
The budget steers $1 billion more to education than last year, when $1.3 billion was cut from K-12 education after the loss of $1 billion in federal stimulus money. The governor touted the $405 million increase in per-student funding, the extra $47 million for enhanced reading programs and $663 million to fill funding gaps due to the influx of 31,000 expected new students next year and lower property taxes. The budget also includes funding that will enable districts to reward the best teachers.
But the $150 per pupil increase means the average state spending on students is $6,357 for 2012-13, lower than it had been for many years when student funding rose to a record high in 2008 at $7,143. It offers the lowest per pupil funding level for Florida's public school students since last year, and the second lowest since 2005-06.
Incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford commended the governor for his deliberate approach to the budget this year.
"Compared to last year, members and our staff were given a lot of opportunity to make the case for why something was funded,'' he said. "The governor has been very deliberate and methodical in going about this. There's always going to be winners and losses. This process they’ve taken has been a very fair process."
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, also commended the governor's approach and said he and his tea "were accessible."
“They listend to arguments from legislators and others,'' Negron said. "I feel like it was done very fairly and the Treasure Coast area, which I represent, we had a banner year in the budget.”
Negron said his three top priorities were not vetoed: $360,000 for a pre-natal care program for indigent women, $500,000 to New Horizons of Treasure Coast to increase the number stabilization beds for children in mental health crisis, and $150,000 for day services for adults with alzheimer's.
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's teachers union, criticized the budget as "a dismal failure" and chastised the governor for claiming the budget helps education.
"Despite the governor’s claims that the increases in funding for education represent his commitment to our schools, he has failed to point out that this budget restores less than a third of what was cut from last year’s education budget and that our schools are still miles behind the funding levels in our state five years ago,'' Ford said in a statement.
“Officials at school districts throughout the state say they’re considering layoffs of teachers and other school employees, and curtailing arts programs and athletics for students."
-- Tia Mitchell contributed to this report.