Friday, December 15, 2017
News Roundup

Gov. Scott vetoes money for regional planning councils for fourth year

Although Gov. Rick Scott didn't veto a lot of spending in this year's $77 billion state budget on Monday, he did reject $2.5 million for the state's regional planning councils.

That he did so should not be a surprise. Scott vetoed funding for the regional planning councils in 2011, 2012 and 2013, too.

Because of Scott's repeated vetoes, the councils have been forced to lay off employees or freeze pay because their other source of funding, local governments, could not fill the gap.

At the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the vetoes have also required picking which of the state-mandated duties to follow and which ones to let slide, said executive director Manny Pumariega, who had been hoping to get about $200,000 of the $2.5 million.

"Some of them you're just not going to be able to fulfill," he said.

There may be broader consequences as well.

"We were going to use that money for economic development in the region," said Terri Joseph, executive director of the West Florida Regional Planning Council, which covers much of the Panhandle, and which also was due to get $200,000 from the state.

Scott did not directly address why he has repeatedly cut out any funding for the planning councils. He said Monday that in selecting what to veto in the budget, "I went through it and tried to look at every one and say, 'Was it a good use of taxpayer money? Do we get a good return on investment?' "

His press secretary, John Tupps, also did not answer why the councils have been singled out. Instead, Tupps said in an email Tuesday only that "this budget works to protect Florida's environment, create jobs and improve our state's infrastructure," and that "the funding for all regional planning council projects comes from federal and local tax dollars."

For more than a quarter of a century, Florida's 11 regional planning councils have worked with cities and counties to, say, find the best hurricane evacuation routes, attract businesses or assess how a shopping center built in one city might affect the traffic in neighboring areas.

The councils could always count on getting some money from the state, until Scott was sworn in. One of his first acts was to join the Legislature in dismantling the state's growth management watchdog agency and the law it enforced. Then he vetoed money for the planning councils. The Legislature always approves $2.5 million, and Scott cuts it to zero.

In 2012, a Scott spokesman said he had vetoed the money that time because "Gov. Scott felt there was a lack of performance measures documenting the effectiveness of regional planning councils to justify state funding." So the councils put together performance measures — and were vetoed again.

"It would be nice to have those funds so things wouldn't be so tight around here," said Margaret Wuerstle, executive director of the Southwest Florida Regional Planning Council, which is based in Fort Myers.

She said her agency has increasingly come to rely on grant money, which has required pursuing things other than their growth-related duties. For a National Endowment for the Arts grant, for instance, her staffers cataloged all the public art in their region.

The 11 councils are members of the Florida Regional Councils Association, whose executive director is longtime Tallahassee lobbyist Ron Book. Book said he met with Scott to plead for his clients, and he's as baffled as anyone else about Scott's repeated rejections of the funding — especially given the Legislature's unflagging support all four years.

"I believe he gave it a hard look," Book said, "but I'm just still not sure that the governor's staff understands all of what the regional planning councils do."

Craig Pittman can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @craigtimes.

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