SAINT JOHNS -- Gov. Rick Scott signed the $70 billion state budget into law Tuesday, surrounded by a group of kindergartners as he emphasized $1 billion more for public schools.
Flanked by four legislators, Scott hailed the "education budget" as he also vetoed nearly $143 million in spending by his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. The money would have funded scores of projects, from community parks to health clinics to road and courthouse improvements.
"We're doing the right things for Floridians," Scott said, adding that his "filter" in judging line-item projects was whether they would produce a return on investment. "We've got to make sure the dollars are spent well."
The same governor who a year ago signed a budget that cut K-12 spending by $1.3 billion now emphasizes the importrance of education to Florida's families. That was why he chose the site of the budget-signing event: Cunningham Creek Elementary School, an A-rated school in northern St. Johns County, south of Jacksonville.
As Scott faced TV cameras in the school's media center, a blackboard behind him carried the message: "Over $1 billion more in education spending."
Scott signed a budget that authorizes a maximum 15 percent increase in tuition at Florida's universities, which he personally opposes because it would raise the cost of living for families. He said he would ask the Board of Governors to prevail on the universities to limit a tuition increase to 5 percent.
"I'm very comfortable the Board of Governors will do that sort of review and the right thing will happen," Scott said.
Scott also left untouched $33 million for USF's polytechnic programs in Lakeland, and said he has not decided whether to approve a separate bill that moves that money to a new, independent Florida Polytechnic University.
Asked if he will sign the Polytech bill (SB 1994), Scott told reporters: "What do y'all think? I think I have until Friday to make a decision." He said he left the money in the higher education budget because "I wanted to make sure the University of South Florida was funded, so I left the money in the budget. I'll make a decision on that -- I think I have to do it by Friday."
Scott acknowledged fielding many phone calls from legislators seeking to salvage their pork-barrel projects in an election year. Some projects did escape the budget ax, such as $5 million for a world-claass rowing center in Sarasota.
The governor said he approved the center after Sarasota officials promised to return the $5 million in state money if the project does not generate as much sales tax revenue as promised. Scott noted that one of the project's backers was Donna Arduin, an economist and former budget director under Gov. Jeb Bush.
"I had a filter. We've got to get a return for the taxpayers of the state." As an example, he said, he did not cut state funding for public TV stations -- as he did last year -- because station executives persuaded him to protect it.
-- Steve Bousquet, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau