TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Charlie Crist proudly announced that he was vetoing a pay cut for 28,000 state workers, there were some salaries he couldn't save from the budget ax: his own, state Cabinet members' and those of about 1,000 judges, prosecutors and public defenders in the state.
He canceled the pay cut for rank-and-file state workers Wednesday when he signed the $66.5 billion state budget. But he was hamstrung when it came to a 2 percent pay cut for 1,045 state officials.
The salaries of the officers, unlike those of other state workers, are individual budget line items. The only way to cancel a pay cut for them: Veto the salaries themselves. That would mean the officers would earn nothing.
State officers are in the top tier of state wage earners. The governor makes the most — $130,273 next budget year — while commissioners of the Public Employee Relations Commission and the Florida Parole Commission earn the least, $90,724. The 2 percent pay cut equates to about $3 million in annual savings.
"I've got two kids in college and no money in the bank," said Rick Parker, the public defender for the Gainesville area, whose pay is being cut along with all the others. He chairs the state public defender's budget committee.
Parker said it was "courageous of the governor" to veto the state worker pay cuts.
But he wonders what effect it will have. State agencies still have to fill the gap left by the nearly $53 million in pay cuts that Crist vetoed.
"There may be layoffs. There may be furloughs," said Parker, noting that busy circuits such as those in Tampa Bay and South Florida might have a difficult time handling more spending reductions after two years of budget cuts.
In all, up to 700 state workers could lose their jobs after the budget goes into effect July 1. Conservatives and private business groups have pointed out that state workers have faced fewer layoffs and pay cuts than those in the private sector.
Crist vetoed only two budget items Wednesday, canceling a raid on a weapons-regulation trust fund along with the 2 percent pay cut for state workers earning more than $45,000.
Later Wednesday, he also nixed a measure to allow for more legislative oversight of state contracts.
While he was unable to stop the reduction of his own salary, Crist said Wednesday that he had sound reasons for vetoing the salary reduction for other state workers.
"These 28,000 people and their families are consumers, too," Crist said, "and I want them to continue to have the ability to make purchases and help stimulate Florida's economy."
Some lawmakers, however, wonder if Crist's pay-cut veto was constitutional. Crist said it was.
The Constitution says that the governor "may not" veto any budget "qualification or restriction" without also canceling out the entire appropriation to which those provisions are attached. Under one interpretation, Crist acted unconstitutionally because he didn't veto the appropriations for state worker pay when he vetoed the pay cuts.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, a Lake Wales Republican, said the veto "may not be legal based on a plain reading of the Constitution and previous court cases, but I'm not an attorney."
A House budget chief and lawyer, Miami Republican Marcelo Llorente, agreed that "there are legitimate questions" about the legality of Crist's veto. But, he said, no decision has been made about whether to challenge the Republican governor in court — an unlikely scenario.
Llorente said the pay cuts were needed to generate future savings, but "it was a very difficult decision."
Mark Ober, Hillsborough County's state attorney and president of the Florida Prosecutors Association, cheered Crist's action.
"We are elated that the governor vetoed that legislation that cut the salaries of our assistants and staff," Ober said.
His own salary will be cut, he said, but that's preferable: "We're prepared to suffer the consequences of that 2 percent cut."
Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.