THE VILLAGES — At a campaign-style event that banned some Democrats, Republican Gov. Rick Scott fashioned himself into Florida's new veto king Thursday when he axed $615 million from the state budget before signing it.
The biggest target of the veto pen: $305 million targeted for environmental land buys. Scott also cut $169 million in college projects and vetoed millions in hometown spending lawmakers earmarked for their districts.
Scott blamed "special interests" for the "shortsighted, frivolous, wasteful spending" — thereby irking some of his fellow Republicans who control the Legislature. Some accused him of hypocrisy, others of inflating his veto amount with financial gimmickry.
Below a banner that read "Promises Made, Promises Kept," Scott brandished his red Sharpie veto pen and called on legislators to use some of the freed-up money to bolster education.
"I'm confident that most of us agree that school funding is far more important than spending those dollars on alligator marketing, or boat racing or anything else that the Tallahassee insiders think is so important," Scott said, pointing to a few items he vetoed.
Scott never mentioned that he originally called for a bigger cut to schools than the Legislature ultimately approved.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, took umbrage with Scott's "new-found emphasis" on more education spending.
Cannon pointed out that much of Scott's vetoes didn't produce $615 million in cash because the items were for bonding authority or the sale of lands. Cannon said Scott only freed up $100 million, which would only increase education spending by .06 percent.
"What is more surprising is the governor's sudden emphasis on K-12 education. The budget we sent him funds education at a higher level than the governor recommended just a few months ago, when he proposed a 10 percent cut," Cannon wrote. "The governor communicated numerous priorities during session, and we did our best to accommodate him. It would have been helpful if the governor had shared this new-found emphasis with us before the budget was finalized."
In his speech Thursday, Scott omitted many of the serious-sounding programs he cut: homeless veterans, meals for poor seniors, a council for deafness, a children's hospital, cancer research, public radio, whooping-cough vaccines for poor mothers or aid for the paralyzed.
It's also debatable whether he holds the record for most vetoes because the environmental program he cut would only be funded from the sale of surplus lands. The less land the state sells in the down economy, the less money his veto will be worth.
If the $305 million land-buy veto is included, Scott's cuts dwarf those made by the prior record-holder, Gov. Charlie Crist, who cut $459 million in 2007.
While he bashed special interests, Scott praised lawmakers for cutting taxes and the size of government. The speech had all the trappings of a campaign celebration. It was paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, which broadcast the event and the banners that touted "Less Waste, More for Education."
Members of The Villages Democratic Club were barred from the budget signing by Scott staffers who said the outdoor event in The Villages town square was "private." Other staffers and Republican operatives scoured the crowd and had Sumter County sheriff's deputies remove those with anti-Scott signs or liberal-looking pins and buttons.
Tea party groups and conservatives praised Scott for making good on his pledge to cut spending and reduce legislative earmarks, nicknamed "turkeys."
Scott called the bill signing a "celebration" of the "jobs budget." He first used the term in February when he proposed his version of the budget at a Eustis tea party rally, an early indication that the political newcomer would use his office for partisan theatrics.
Democrats couldn't help but note the irony that Scott's "jobs budget" eliminates roughly 4,500 state-worker jobs and could therefore make matters worse in a state with record unemployment. About 2,000 of the jobs are filled. Already, the Department of Children and Families has announced 500 layoffs.
"If he means the 'jobs budget' is killing jobs, then it's an accurate title," said Democratic House leader Ron Saunders of Key West.
The job cuts are part of a one-two punch felt by state workers. They'll now be required to kick in an additional 3 percent of their salaries to fund their retirements. Nearly every government service was cut in the budget: health care for the poor, schools, the environment and courts.
The budget, passed May 7 by the Legislature, now weighs in at roughly $69.1 billion after the $615 million in vetoes. It's about $1.3 billion smaller than the current budget, which expires June 30, at the end of the fiscal year.
Lawmakers actually cut more in anticipated spending — about $3.7 billion — than meets the eye because Medicaid rolls boomed in the down economy, putting more pressure on them to trim spending. Also, property taxes that help fund education decreased when property values plummeted. At the same time, courts were handling more foreclosure cases and prison costs continued to increase.
Despite all the pressures to cut and save, legislators still set aside about $300 million for tax cuts and business incentives. It was a far cry from the $2.4 billion in tax-and-fee cuts that Scott called for, but legislators made sure to give some tax relief to ensure he didn't veto the budget.
Scott was placated with a $37 million corporate-income tax cut. He wanted the tax eliminated.
Legislators also socked away about $2.4 billion in savings. And they sprinkled at least $200 million on hometown projects.
Some projects, such as a $5 million regatta center in Sarasota, were tough to justify in a year when state workers and teachers face layoffs. Scott took issue with a $500,000 appropriation for an Ocala horse farm and a $250,000 plan to reuse rainwater at prisons.
"I'm sure most Floridians believe as I do that spending $250,000 on education materials for our kids is more important than spending a quarter of a million dollars to learn how to catch rainwater," Scott said. "Where I'm from, rainwater can be caught with a $2 bucket."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said Scott was "totally disingenuous" for calling for more education money when he initially wanted to cut more of it.
"It's a bit hypocritical," Fasano said. "Thank goodness we didn't follow his lead because more teachers would have been laid off."
Fasano suggested Scott's emphasis on education was a result of Wednesday's news from Quinnipiac University, which released a poll that indicated he had the lowest approval rating of any governor, 29 percent.
Not all hometown projects got vetoed. Fasano's $650,000 earmark to help wayward youths in Pasco County survived, but a $1 million Tampa Bay at-risk youth center was vetoed.
Scott vetoed $11 million for two University of South Florida projects, but let stand a polytechnic project of $35 million championed by Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander.
When Scott announced his vetoes, he was flanked by children from charter schools. Yet he vetoed a $400,000 appropriation for the KIPP Jacksonville charter school — the site where he signed a much-ballyhooed teacher merit-pay bill.
Some praised a few of the line-item vetoes.
Former Supreme Court justice Raoul Cantero issued a statement that said he was "extremely pleased" Scott vetoed "the ill-advised" $400,000 study of the Supreme Court that Republican lawmakers wanted to help overhaul the judiciary.
Others said Scott should be commended for making tough decisions.
"He's done exactly, to the letter, what he said he would do when he ran," said Mike Gordon, 49, a Hernando County tea party member who waited more than two hours to hear Scott in The Villages. "This is a jobs budget."