Saturday, November 18, 2017
Politics

Florida Gov. Rick Scott signs budget, vetoes $368 million in spending

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TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott signed a record-sized $74.1 billion budget Monday, but not before trimming off hundreds of millions of dollars in local projects and proposed tuition increases.

Scott vetoed nearly $368 million in spending from the budget legislators presented him two weeks ago, using his line-item authority to strike $50 million for a coast-to-coast bike trail, $46 million in college and university tuition hikes and more than 150 other projects.

Scott's extensive veto list is more than twice as large as his list last year, but smaller than his first year in office, when he slashed $615 million.

Even with the vetoes, the 2013-14 budget is still the largest on record, with $480 million for teacher pay raises, $8.5 billion for transportation projects, $151.8 million for Everglades restoration, $278 million for ports and $45.5 million for business incentives.

"This is our first year that we have a budget surplus in six years," Scott said Monday during a news conference at the state's Division of Emergency Management office. "That's why I put so much effort this year into the budget, to make sure we had tax cuts."

Scott said crafting the budget, and deciding what to veto, largely hinged on two things: jobs and education. He stood by his decision to veto a host of local projects, saying they did not meet his formula for effective state spending.

"My filter was this: One, is it going to help our families get more jobs?" he said. "Two, will it help improve our education system in our state? And three, will it help make government more efficient?"

The budget goes into effect July 1.

Monday marked the first time Scott took a low-key approach to unveiling his budget message. In previous years, Scott delivered budget remarks during public appearances: a rally for supporters in the Villages in 2011 and at a high performing St. Johns County school in 2012.

This year he answered the media's questions in Tallahassee with only members of his staff in attendance. Scott also released a detailed 58-page document that outlined the reasoning behind every veto.

Scott struck down funding for a wide range of projects — from $400,000 to improve the drinking water in Cross City, to $300,000 for the Clay County Courthouse, to $200,000 for a Lake Wales dental clinic.

Some projects backed by top Republicans, including leaders in the House and Senate, also got the ax.

"While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 95 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford had championed a 3 percent increase in college tuition, but Scott used his veto pen to strike it out of the budget.

Scott had been expected to veto the tuition increase for state colleges, universities and workforce education. His letter included comments of support from three community college presidents and University of Florida president Bernie Machen.

"As a result of the additional funds contained in the budget, the University of Florida will not be seeking a tuition increase for next year," Machen said.

Scott had hoped all 12 state university presidents would collectively sign a letter rejecting any tuition revenue increases, but they refused. Although Scott said his intent is to maintain tuition and fees at current levels, state law requires tuition to rise at minimum to keep up with the rate of inflation, which is 1.7 percent this year.

Universities have already said they won't ask the state Board of Governors to raise tuition up to 15 percent, as allowed by state law. But none have committed to refusing the inflation adjustment. Scott said Monday he hopes they will, but he avoided the question of whether it's legally possible.

"I don't believe tuition ought to be going up at all," he said. "Tuition has gone up way too fast the last few years."

Scott removed many projects from the budget that he determined didn't fulfill a core role of government, didn't have statewide impact, weren't properly vetted during the budget process or provided public support for private entities.

He vetoed more than $25 million in local water projects, millions in spending for education programs and school construction, museums, re-entry programs and other social services.

Many lawmakers hoping to include "turkeys" in the budget during the first surplus in years were disappointed as Scott trimmed away their hometown projects.

"Licking my wounds," Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, tweeted after he learned the governor had deleted $14 million in funding for a science and technology building at Gulf Coast State College in Panama City. The college is in the district of Gaetz's father, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott hailed the final spending plan as the "Florida Families First" budget, highlighting his push for $2,500 pay raises for public school teachers, a record investment in K-12 education, pay increases for state workers and a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday.

From August 2 through 4, the state's 6 percent sales tax will be eliminated for school supplies less than $15, clothes worth less than $75 and new computers costing less than $750.

One of Scott's largest veto items: $50 million for the state's Coast-to-Coast connector, a bike trail stretching from St. Petersburg to Titusville. Scott said the state's ongoing transportation budget already includes more than $57 million in statewide funding for transit greenways and bike paths, and that the connector could be completed over time.

"The worthwhile project contemplated by the Coast-to-Coast connector," Scott wrote in the veto letter, "can be built incrementally and consistent with a prioritization of gaps in the existing trail system."

Though his veto pen struck down funding for a Broward County Holocaust education center, job training for "displaced homemakers" and a Building Homes for Heroes program for veterans, Scott was more friendly with some local projects.

He approved $1 million in funding for a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami, $5 million for a rowing center in Sarasota and $5 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is looking to film a sequel to the 2011 movie Dolphin Tale.

Other projects spared included $200,000 for the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg, $250,000 for the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, $500,000 for the Murray Studio Theater at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater and $5 million for a new College of Business building at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

In addition to signing the budget, Scott also signed off on 16 related bills that implement the state's spending plan. Among them is a measure to create a new Medicaid payment system for hospitals and $65 million to ease that transition and another that extends health insurance coverage to contract employees who work full-time.

Scott also signed the government transparency bill that makes more state contracts and data accessible via the Internet.

He was leaving Monday on a three-day trade mission to Chile.

More bills will await the governor's signature, including a Friday deadline for elections reform legislation, HB 7013.

Dozens of other bills approved by the Legislature still haven't been sent to the governor for approval.

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