Every day brings Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature closer to an inevitable clash over the budget.
County school superintendents from Miami to Pensacola want Scott to trash the K-12 education chunk of the budget that increases spending by $24 per pupil next year. A similar education-only veto of that size hasn't happened since 1983 when Gov. Bob Graham blasted his fellow Democrats' "willing acceptance of mediocrity" in public education.
As the AP's Ken Klein reported, Graham dramatically vetoed the education budget after midnight on June 30, 1983, after lawmakers refused to raise taxes, forcing school districts to start a new fiscal year with no new state money. They kept the lights on with reserves, property taxes and loans, and Miami-Dade Superintendent Leonard Britton said that was better than Tallahassee's "abandonment budget."
Britton told The Miami Herald that he wasn't sure Graham had the nerve to make such a big move. But he did. The Legislature did not override Graham's veto and after a quick special session of wheeling and dealing, he got most of what he wanted.
Now it's Scott's turn. A similar Scott veto would make him the toast of Florida educators -- for the moment, anyway -- and how could Democratic politicians or the teachers' union fault him for demanding more money for schools? But Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the two main architects of this budget, won't like being portrayed by Scott as secretly plotting to punish innocent children, so it's a safe bet that tensions in Tallahassee would get worse. Maybe a lot worse.
The K-12 budget of nearly $24 billion accounts for nearly one-third of the entire $82.4 billion budget, so if Scott is willing to go that far, why not go all the way and veto the whole thing? After all, some back-bench House Democrats got more out of this budget than Scott. His sweeping veto would remind people who's in charge, and if Republicans try to override his veto by two-thirds votes (likely in the House, less likely in the Senate), Scott has a new reason to campaign against "those politicians in Tallahassee," one of his favorite sound bites.
Scott, who's expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, began his first term in 2011 with a politically disastrous call for a 10 percent cut to public schools. He later tried to make amends with a call for $2,500 raises for teachers, but their union, the Florida Education Association, still backed Democrat Charlie Crist for governor in 2014 -- and the union will stand by Nelson next year, too.
Scott has no serious Republican primary challenger in sight, but if he tacks to the left again, it will unleash more wrath from Corcoran, who will accuse Scott of nakedly pandering to a liberal teachers' union and bloated school districts, and if Scott also vetoes Corcoran's signature charter school legislation (HB 7069), it's only the beginning.
Words matter in politics. Scott has spent weeks traveling the state, criticizing every aspect of the Legislature's budget. How can he now possibly sign a budget he has spent so much time condemning? For the governor, it will soon be put-up-or-shut-up time.