Gov. Scott Inks Record Budget, Spares Most Projects
Without the public ceremony of past years, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday quietly signed into law a $77 billion, election-year budget, slashing just $68.9 million in pet projects from across the state.
The spending plan, the largest in state history, provides plenty of hometown projects for lawmakers to tout as they seek re-election, while increasing money for public schools, state colleges and universities, environmental projects and child welfare.
Scott offered few details about his line-item vetoes when asked about the budget by reporters after a campaign event in Panama City.
"It's nice to have a budget surplus to work with, to make strategic investments, to keep our state working, more jobs, improve education, improve transportation, and that's what we did," Scott said.
Vetoes included $2 million for public-transportation improvements for the planned 1,000-foot SkyRise Miami tower; $123,000 for a dog park in Jacksonville; $525,000 to develop canoe and kayak launches along public trails in Wakulla County; $50,000 to hire the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences to study Chronic Wasting Disease in deer; and $150,000 in both Duval and Broward counties for single-gender schools.
Republicans were quick to praise Scott for sparse use of his veto powers, while Democrats reacted by labeling the fiscal package as "pork-filled."
"Per-pupil education funding remains below 2007 levels. Bright Futures scholarships have been slashed to the bone," Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Allison Tant said in a prepared statement. "Nearly 1 million Floridians still lack access to affordable health care. In a re-election campaign where Rick Scott is trying desperately to run away from his failed record, one thing has not changed: Rick Scott takes care of the wealthy special interests while ignoring the needs of middle class Floridians."
The budget, which goes into effect July 1, provides the highest education funding in Florida history in terms of the total amount, $18.9 billion. However, on a per-student basis, education funding is still almost $190 below where it stood before the 2008 financial collapse.
Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called the budget a "squandered opportunity" for public schools.
"This Legislature found even more money for even more tax breaks for corporations, but schools still aren’t funded at the level they were seven years ago," Ford said in a prepared statement.
However, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, was among those on the right who commended the governor for "ensuring Florida’s fiscal needs are met in a way that maximizes every dollar."
The budget doesn't include tuition increases for state university and college students. Also, state workers will be eligible for performance bonuses rather than across-the-board pay raises.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers packed the budget with district priorities as they enjoyed a surplus that topped $1 billion.
Lawmakers had previously given Scott his requested $500 million in tax and fee cuts, which he is using as a centerpiece for his re-election campaign.
Asked if his re-election and that of Republican state lawmakers went into the decision-making process on the budget, Scott said his "focus was on the taxpayers."
Chris Hudson, director of the Florida chapter of Americans for Prosperity, one of a constellation of conservative groups that have helped fuel the tea-party movement, applauded the budget signing.
"This budget sends the message that Florida is focused on the long-term growth of economic opportunity and prosperity for all its families and businesses," Hudson said in a statement.
Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, which is headed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, countered the teachers union by declaring "it was a good session for Florida students."
Levesque noted the education spending includes $40 million to bring addition digital technology into classrooms and $18.4 million to provide vouchers for children with disabilities through Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts.
Scott used his line-item veto power to cut $368 million from what had been a $74.5 billion budget a year ago. He cut $142.7 million from the spending plan in 2012, after nixing $615 million his first year in office.
In a news release Monday, Scott praised the fiscal package for investing in jobs, education, cancer research, transportation, military veterans, seniors and the environment.
The budget bill (HB 5001) was among 21 signed into law on Monday, including one that is a nod to incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, by allocating $15 million for work on a coast-to-coast bicycle trail.
Scott had vetoed a $50 million allocation for the coast-to-coast trail a year earlier.
The largest vetoes were $3.25 million for the Stetson University Sage Science Center office and lab and $3.25 million for Topeekeegee Yugnee Park in Broward County.
A line item of $350,000 for the restoration of an Addison Mizner-designed fountain in Palm Beach survived Scott cuts, while $205,000 to help renovate the historic Fulford-By-The-Sea Monument in North Miami Beach was vetoed.