ST. JOHNS — Surrounded by photogenic 5-year-olds, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday signed what he called an "education budget" that adds $1 billion in public school spending and allows higher tuition at state colleges and universities.
Scott also vetoed nearly $143 million in line-item projects championed by fellow Republicans in the Legislature that he said did not benefit the state as a whole or weren't worth the investment. He vetoed grants for autism, Alzheimer's care, disadvantaged youths, clinics, courthouse, road and seaport improvements, the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami.
The $70 billion budget includes a 5 percent tuition increase at state colleges. But Scott sent shock waves through the state university system by suggesting that the Board of Governors limit universities' tuition hikes to 5 percent as well, though universities can seek a tuition increase of up to 15 percent. Universities had been counting on higher tuition rates to help offset $300 million in state funding cuts.
"Some of these universities are wanting to raise tuition 15 percent a year," Scott told WOKV radio in Jacksonville on Tuesday morning before signing the budget. "I mean, name a business. Can you raise your advertising rates 15 percent year after year? You can't. You wouldn't be in business. Your competition wouldn't let you."
Under a program known as tuition differential, university trustees can ask the Board of Governors for increases beyond whatever the Legislature approves, as long as the total doesn't exceed 15 percent a year. The Legislature recommended no base tuition increase, so it was assumed the schools would seek the full 15 percent.
The budget Scott signed draws that conclusion by including money from a future 15 percent hike when listing each university's projected revenue for next year, while keeping the per-credit-hour tuition fees the same as they are now.
Scott also protected $33 million in the budget for the University of South Florida's polytechnic campus in Lakeland, an indication he may be leaning toward approving creation of Florida Polytechnic as the state's 12th university. Scott said he will decide by Friday whether to approve the bill (SB 1994) creating the independent university, which was the top priority of influential Senate budget chief JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.
Scott signed the $70 billion budget at an A-rated elementary school in an upper-middle class Jacksonville suburb where he stood before a camera-friendly chalkboard that touted the new school money.
Seated at a desk with a bowl of apples on it, Scott drove the message that he cares about kids and schools — a message being featured in a Republican Party of Florida TV ad that shows Scott in a classroom.
"All of us are very focused on education," said Scott, who will repeat the theme Wednesday with stops at schools in Tampa and Orlando. "This is an education budget."
But education groups and their Democratic allies in the Legislature said the budget does not make up for five consecutive years of cuts to K-12 spending, including $1.3 billion in cuts Scott approved last year.
They also said the $1 billion "increase" is not an increase at all, because it must pay for an influx of more than 30,000 new students, a decline in property tax revenue for schools and loss of federal stimulus money for education.
The $150 per pupil increase means the average state spending per student will be $6,357 for 2012-13. Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, a teachers union, called the budget "a dismal failure" and chastised Scott for claiming it helps education.
"He has failed to point out that this budget restores less than a third of what was cut from last year's education budget and that our schools are still miles behind the funding levels in our state five years ago,'' Ford said. School districts across the state are considering layoffs of teachers and other personnel and curtailing arts and sports programs, the union leader said.
Scott drew praise from legislators for giving them more of an opportunity to argue their case this year.
"Is he becoming a better politician? Yes,'' said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
"The governor has been very deliberate and methodical in going about this," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the incoming House speaker. "There's always going to be winners and losers."
One of the biggest losers this year was South Florida. Scott used his veto pen more sparingly this year than last and removed $142.7 million in projects, but South Florida was hit particularly hard.
From vetoing $500,000 for a Bay of Pigs Historical Museum — on the 51st anniversary of the invasion — to rejecting a plan to replace aging trucks in the city of Hialeah, the governor vetoed $25 million from Miami-Dade and Broward alone.
He vetoed money for two programs to aid families of children with autism.
"I am a recent father, and my wife is about to have our second baby next month," Rep. Jose Diaz, R-Miami, said in an email. "I was especially disappointed to see that the governor vetoed two separate projects that would have directly benefited families of children with autism in South Florida. It is difficult to see cuts to this special cause that is so near and dear to my heart."
Also eliminated were dozens of local programs developed to enhance a university or medical center, such as about $3.6 million earmarked for the University of Miami's medical school.
Scott also eliminated several projects in or near the impoverished inland district of Rep. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, the chief House budget-writer.
What survived were projects Scott deemed worthy because of their economic development potential, such as a $5 million plan for a rowing center in Sarasota. Scott struck a deal that requires Sarasota County to return all of the money if the project does not generate as much sales tax revenue as projected.
Scott approved $1 million for the Boys and Girls Club of Pasco County in the home county of Weatherford, while he vetoed $100,000 for Girls Incorporated of Sarasota County. Scott said he considers Boys and Girls Clubs student-focused programs that provide "measurable results."
Florida Aquarium unsuccessfully made a first-time request for $500,000, half of which would have paid for education programs and the other half for underwater archaeology projects, a spokeswoman said.
"While we are extremely disappointed in the decision, we do understand the financial constraints our state is currently operating under," said spokeswoman Katherine Chakour.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Brittany Davis, Lorri Helfand, Tia Mitchell, Toluse Olorunnipa, Jodie Tillman and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.