Scott squashes $368M in pork spending

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 21, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott signed a record $74.1 billion state budget Monday, but not before trimming hundreds of millions of dollars from local projects and proposed tuition increases.

Scott vetoed almost $368 million in spending from the budget legislators presented to him two weeks ago, using his line-item authority to strike $50 million for a coast-to-coast bike trail, $46 million in college and university tuition hikes and more than 150 other projects.

Scott's extensive veto list is more than twice as large as his list last year, and his largest since his first year in office, when he slashed $615 million.

Even with the vetoes, the 2013-14 Florida budget is still the largest ever, and includes $480 million for teacher pay raises, $8.5 billion for transportation projects, $151.8 million for Everglades restoration, $278 million for ports and $45.5 million for business incentives.

"This is our first year that we have a budget surplus in six years," Scott said Monday during a press conference at the state's Division of Emergency Management office. "That's why I put so much effort this year into the budget, to make sure we had tax cuts."

Scott said crafting the budget, and deciding what to veto, largely hinged on two things: jobs and education. He stood by his decision to veto a host of local projects, saying they did not meet his formula for effective state spending.

"My filter was this: One, is it going to help our families get more jobs?" he said. "Two, will it help improve our education system in our state? And three, will it help make government more efficient?"

The budget will take effect July 1.

Scott struck down funding for a wide range of projects -- from $400,000 to improve drinking water in Cross City to $300,000 for the Clay County Courthouse to $200,000 for a Lake Wales dental clinic. Some projects backed by top Republicans, including leaders in the House and Senate, also got the ax.

"While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 95 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Weatherford had championed a 3 percent increase in college tuition, but Scott used his veto pen to strike it from the budget.

Monday marked the first time Scott took a low-key approach to unveiling his budget message. In previous years, Scott delivered budget remarks during public appearances: a rally for supporters in The Villages retirement community in 2011 and at a high-performing St. Johns County school in 2012.

This year he answered reporter questions in Tallahassee with only members of his staff in attendance. Scott also released a detailed, 58-page document that outlined the reasoning behind every veto.

Scott removed many projects from the budget that he determined did not fulfill a core role of government, did not have statewide impact, provided public support for private entities or were not properly vetted during the budget process.

He vetoed more than $25 million in local water projects, millions in spending for education programs and school construction, museums, re-entry programs and other social services.

Many lawmakers hoping to include so-called "turkeys" in the budget during the first year of a surplus in years were disappointed when Scott axed their hometown projects.

"Licking my wounds," state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, tweeted after he learned the governor had deleted $14 million for a science and technology building at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City. The college is in the district of Gaetz's father, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott hailed the final spending plan as the "Florida Families First" budget, highlighting his push for $2,500 pay raises for public school teachers, a record investment in K-12 education, pay increases for the state workers and a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday.

From Aug. 2 through Aug. 4, the state's 6 percent sales tax will be eliminated for school supplies that cost less than $15, clothes priced less than $75 and new computers costing less than $750.

As expected, Scott vetoed a 3 percent tuition increase for state colleges, universities and work force education. His letter included comments of support from three community college presidents and University of Florida President Bernie Machen.

"As a result of the additional funds contained in the budget, the University of Florida will not be seeking a tuition increase for next year," Machen said.

Scott had hoped all 12 state university presidents would collectively sign a letter rejecting any tuition revenue increases, but they refused. Although Scott said his intent is to maintain tuition and fees at current levels, state law requires tuition to rise, at minimum, to keep up with the rate of inflation, which is 1.7 percent this year.

Universities have already said they would not ask the state Board of Governors to raise tuition by as much as 15 percent, as allowed by state law. But none has committed to refusing the inflation adjustment. Scott said Monday he hoped they would, but he avoided the question of whether it is legally possible.

"I don't believe tuition ought to be going up at all," he said. "Tuition has gone up way too fast the last few years."

One of Scott's largest veto items: $50 million for the state's Coast-to-Coast connector, a bike trail stretching from St. Petersburg to Titusville. Scott said the state transportation budget already includes more than $57 million in statewide funding for transit greenways and bike paths, and that the connector could be completed over time.

"The worthwhile project contemplated by the Coast-to-Coast connector," Scott wrote in the veto letter, "can be built incrementally and consistent with a prioritization of gaps in the existing trail system."

Though his veto pen struck down funding for a Broward County Holocaust education center, job training for "displaced homemakers" and a "Building Homes for Heroes" program for veterans, Scott was more friendly to some local projects. He approved $1 million in funding for a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami, $5 million for a rowing center in Sarasota and $5 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is looking to film a sequel to the 2011 movie "Dolphin Tale."

In addition to signing the budget, Scott also signed 16 related bills implementing the state spending plan. Among them is a measure to create a new Medicaid payment system for hospitals and $65 million to ease that transition, and another that extends health insurance coverage to contract employees who work full-time.

Scott also signed the government transparency bill that makes more state contracts and data accessible via the Internet.

He left Monday on a three-day trade mission to Chile. More bills will await the governor's signature, including a Friday deadline for elections reform legislation, House Bill 7013. Dozens of other bills approved by the Legislature still have not been sent to the governor for approval.

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