FL governor state spending priorities boost economy, inflict human pain

After exercising a scorched earth policy with spending vetoes during his rookie season as governor, Rick Scott revealed a more modest and political bent this time around while trimming a $70 billion state budget. This year's line-item veto total almost reached $143 million, quite a drop from the $615 million carved out of the 2011-2012 budget.

This time around, the governor vowed to make spending decisions based on economic development and job creation projections and potential return to the state in sales tax revenue. The $5 million allocation for the Florida World Aquatic Center in Sarasota survived this year, a welcome state investment in a promising financial bonanza. The governor insured state money with a claw-back provision that requires repayment should the world-class rowing center fail to meet economic expectations.

Florida TaxWatch labeled the rowing project a turkey in its annual list of dubious spending but did not advocate a veto, instead recommending a review of the economic merits. On the surface, a rowing facility sounds like an unlikely extravagance in a state strapped for cash and an easy target for disparagement. But the governor's approval signals faith in the rowing complex, which is already providing economic stimulus to both Sarasota and Manatee counties with events attracting thousands of visitors.

The governor showed less faith in programs where the economic benefits are only found deep down the financial food chain. With the veto of $750,000 earmarked for the Manatee Children's Crisis Stabilization Unit, Manatee Glens will be forced to reduce services somewhere unless Manatee County comes up with replacement money, an option with limited chances of success.

Mary Ruiz, the president and chief executive officer at Manatee Glens, indicated that services at the 24-hour mental health access center may be reduced instead of cutting back on the children's crisis unit -- the only place in the county for parents to place children with "serious emotional challenges." Demand for the unit's services has soared by 19 percent over the past two years.

Should the 24-hour center trim access, people will end up in emergency rooms where the care is expensive -- and likely to fall back on county taxpayers in the form of indigent care payments. With this ripple effect, government will still pay -- just not the state, which saves money at county expense. That's shortsighted public policy.

The $750,000 Manatee Glens allocation ended up on the TaxWatch turkey list, the county's lone entry, not on the merits of the program but because of the budgeting process involved. The money was added by the House-Senate conference committee, thus bypassing competitive selection. But a sharper review is warranted with programs that impact public health -- unlike pet projects that benefit special interests and political patrons.

One wonders about the politics of the veto pen in cases that involve influential players. For example, the governor did not touch a $1 million grant for construction of a community center for the Boys and Girls Club of Pasco County, the home turf for incoming House Speaker Will Weatherford. Yet Scott vetoed $100,000 for Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County. Other vetoes target Alzheimer's care, clinics and autism.

The governor, who has become more adept at the political game after almost 18 months in office, should benefit from the House speaker's help in pushing his agenda next year. Last year Scott shook up the political establishment. This year he appears to have joined the club.

While Scott's sharp focus on economic development holds great value, he's overlooking human costs in terms of the physical and mental health programs that serve Floridians and their families. The return on investment here is a healthier population that doesn't drain resources but holds jobs and serve communities -- an investment impossible to quantify in dollars.