TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a modest $64 million from a record $88.7 billion budget Friday and signed the final state spending plan of his tenure, before he is termed out in November.
The governor's swift response to a budget, passed by lawmakers Sunday in a 75-minute overtime session, rejected a request from school officials around the state who urged lawmakers to return to Tallahassee and increase the average per pupil increase for K-12 education in the budget.
However, the two-term governor, who is expected to seek the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate soon, touted the school budget as "record funding," and emphasized the more than $400 million in new funds for school safety and Bright Futures scholarships for Florida college students.
"Today, Florida is strong and I am proud of our hard work over the past seven years to grow the economy, invest in education, protect the environment and keep our families safe,'' Scott said in his budget letter.
The budget (HB 5001) is the largest in Florida history but it also contains one of the smallest packages of tax cuts in years (HB 7087), valued at about $171 million. Lawmakers also required counties to reduce property taxes slightly to save another $377 million.
And, after resisting compliance with a court-ordered settlement for years, the governor and lawmakers chose this election year to pay $54 million to 84,000 families in Broward and Palm Beach counties who lost citrus trees in the Department of Agriculture's effort to eradicate citrus canker. They did not include the $59 million courts have said are owed to families in Lee and Orange counties. A lawsuit involving homeowners in Miami-Dade County is still pending.
Although the education budget increased average per-pupil spending by $101.50, much of that is earmarked for school safety measures in response to the Parkland shootings, leaving only 47 new cents per pupil in unrestricted funds available for basic expenses like electric bills and teacher raises. Legislators are limiting spending of most of the new money to certain categories, including additional mental health professionals, school resource officers and teacher performance bonuses.
In South Florida, the education increases are even lower than the statewide amount, with per-student increases of $65.06 and $52.35 for Miami-Dade and Broward counties, respectively.
The school safety money will go to school districts and charter schools to hire additional school resource officers, establish school-based mental healthcare and pay for school safety hardening projects, such as bulletproof glass, metal detectors, alarm systems and other measures in the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
Scott said he was proud to sign the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act "to keep our students and communities safe so this never happens again."
But school district officials warned that the millions of new investments in school safety came at the expense of routine education costs.
On Thursday, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, led by Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie, asked Scott to call lawmakers back for a special session to raise school funding, saying they may struggle to keep up with rising costs of utilities, retirement benefits and raises.
"It's going to mean we'll have to cut something out of our budget. It's going to have to come from our programs," said Hillsborough County Superintendent Jeff Eakins. "It's going to create challenges across the state of Florida. I don't think people understand the cuts we took when the economy turned down. And my biggest question is: Why aren't we investing in education when our economy is stronger?"
True to his pattern of these last seven years, the governor vetoed less money in an election year than he did in the previous non-election year when lawmakers don't need to use spending to show their support for their communities and constituents. The $64 million in vetoes was lower than the $69 million the governor eliminated in 2014, when he was running for re-election.
Vetoes included $1.5 million for a proposal to extend the Suncoast Parkway north to the Georgia state line as a hurricane evacuation route. Scott said in his veto message that the study could be done without additional funds.
Several local projects in South Florida also hit the chopping block: $2.5 million for Opa-locka's airport and money for emergency operation centers in Dania Beach and Coral Springs.
The governor also rejected $650,000 for pedestrian lights on State Road 7, bordering West Park in Broward County, for the third year in a row.
"It's unfortunate the governor doesn't see the need for the revitalization of this community," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, who highlighted its predominantly African-American population.
The road, which was widened a few years ago, got new lights on the side bordering Miramar but not the east side bordering West Park, he said. "The governor has shown time and time again that communities of color do not matter to him."
In Tampa Bay, more than $772,000 in project money for the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, was struck from the budget. Disgraced former Sen. Jack Latvala's final local project — $500,000 for Ruth Eckerd Hall — was also vetoed.
Smaller projects — including $270,000 to buy the building housing a quilting museum in Trenton, near Gainesville, and $150,000 for promoting a cattle show in Miami — didn't make the cut, either.
The only funding cut to be reversed was $15 million for Zika research, which legislators cut out of the budget. The Zika funding, which goes to the Department of Health, is "contractually obligated for research in response to the Zika epidemic," Scott wrote in his veto message.
The vetoes bring Scott's total to more than $2.3 billion in legislative spending in eight years as governor.
The vetoes this year also fall far short of the $11.9 billion the governor wiped — and later restored — from the Legislature's first budget last year. That's when he rejected all the money for public schools in an effort to prompt lawmakers back into session to inject more money into tourism marketing, which had become a top priority for him. He also used the exercise to try to increase school funding by $100 for each student.
The budget increases also include more than $105 million the Department of Corrections has agreed to pay to settle three lawsuits over the agency's handling of inmates infected with Hepatitis C, those with mental health issues and inmates who are disabled.
The budget includes $1 million for more cameras in juvenile residential detention facilities, the result of the Miami Herald's "Fight Club" investigation.
Legislators put $85 million in the governor's Florida Job Growth Grant project to lure economic development and agreed to fund Visit Florida at $76 million.
Environmentalists were pleased with the inclusion this year of $100.8 million for land preservation through the Florida Forever program, $248 million for Everglades restoration and protection and $50 million for protection of natural springs.
For most taxpayers, the tax cut highlights are sales-tax holidays for back-to-school purchases and a one-week tax break for disaster preparedness items. Another hurricane-related provision requires tax collectors to give homeowners a refund on their property taxes if their property was damaged enough for them to receive federal disaster relief credit.
Legislators financed some of the tax package by sweeping more than $180 million in revenue earmarked for affordable housing. They left $109.6 million in local and state affordable housing grants, including $15 million for workforce housing to serve low-income people and $15 million to restore affordable housing to the storm-ravaged Florida Keys.
Legislators said the tax cut package shrank because the state needed the money to pay for school safety improvements and mental health counseling as a result of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland that took 17 lives on Feb. 14.
But they also found $140 million to fund the "Schools of Hope" program, an incentive fund to encourage charter school to open in areas where they can compete with low-performing traditional schools, and $40 million to create a "Hope Scholarship" program, which would provide voucher-like scholarships to thousands of students to attend private school if they are bullied or suffer other abuses in public schools.
Adding to some districts' anxiety is a change in the formula for per-student funding that favors less populated counties at the expense of urban ones, a change that some lawmakers said will help districts that have long been shortchanged. But officials in urban districts like Miami and the Tampa area have countered that the change simply ignores their higher costs of living and could make it impossible for them to recruit teachers to live in the most expensive parts of the state without offering better pay.
The budget also includes $144 million to expand the Bright Futures scholarships to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees for Florida Academic Scholars and 75 percent for Florida Medallion Scholars. The change will also allow Bright Futures scholarships to cover summer courses for Florida Academic Scholars beginning summer 2018 and Florida Medallion Scholars beginning in 2019.
Scott touted the $170 million package of cuts as well as a budget decision to hold down property tax collections by $377 million that otherwise would have gone to fund public schools.
Local property taxes are part of the school-funding formula known as the "required local effort." Pushed by the House, lawmakers reduced the tax rate on existing buildings. That action will be only partially offset by increased property-tax revenues from newly constructed homes and businesses.
Last year's vetoes included about 400 projects worth nearly $410 million that were placed in the budget by Republicans and Democrats. In 2016, Scott vetoed $256 million, sparing more damage to an already shaky relationship that year between him and the Republican-led legislature.
In 2015, Scott angered lawmakers by cutting $461 million, including a $2,000 pay raise for state firefighters, after another tense session. In 2014, another election year, Scott's vetoes dropped to $69 million from a budget than also included $500 million in fee and tax cuts and more money for schools. The governor vetoed the greatest amount in his first year in office, when he rejected $615 million in spending and reduced the education budget by $1.3 billion.
Mary Elen Klas can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas