TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott hits the road this morning to sign the new state budget at a top-rated elementary school in an upscale suburb of Jacksonville.
The location gives Scott a convenient backdrop to frame what is sure to be part of this year's budget message: the fact that the Legislature boosted public school spending by $1 billion, as he requested.
But that will not quite make up for a cut of $1.3 billion in the current year's budget.
Scott will sign the budget at noon at the A-rated Cunningham Creek Elementary School in northern St. Johns County, in a week when students are taking FCAT tests that are used to grade schools.
The $70.8 billion budget poses several challenges for the second-year governor.
Scott, whose oft-stated priority is not to raise the cost of living on Floridians, must decide whether to approve legislative tuition increases of 15 percent at state universities and 5 percent at state colleges.
He has repeatedly said he opposes higher tuition.
If Scott vetoes the tuition hike, which is embedded in the higher education budget, he could provoke a constitutional fight with the Legislature. But lawmakers would then have to defend the higher tuition fees in court, an unlikely political prospect in an election year.
Scott also must decide whether to approve millions of dollars for Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, which under a separate bill awaiting his signature would become a 12th state university, independent from the University of South Florida.
Scott said he also has received "a lot" of phone calls from fellow Republicans in the Legislature who don't want him to veto the many local projects in the budget, from museums to health grants to storm water improvements to a rowing center in Sarasota.
"I'll tell you one thing that's different this year — I know more people, which is a positive," Scott said recently. "I get a lot more phone calls this year, too."
In deciding whether to approve or kill line-item spending, Scott said: "If it's a good return on the taxpayers' money, I'm interested in it. If it's not, I'm not."
Scott's choice of a budget-signing venue is safer than his decision last year, when he held a partisan rally at the Villages, a large retirement community in Central Florida, at which a small group of Democratic protesters were excluded.
St. Johns was rated the best school district in the state in February by the Department of Education, based on combined numerical FCAT test scores of its students.
The affluent coastal county in northeast Florida is also strongly Republican: Voters there preferred Scott over Democrat Alex Sink by nearly a 2-to-1 margin in the 2010 governor's race.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.