For Gov. Rick Scott, 'fighting' could mean vetoing entire state budget

The last time a Florida governor vetoed the education portion of the state budget was in 1983. Gov. Bob Graham blasted fellow Democrats for their “willing acceptance of mediocrity.” Associated Press
The last time a Florida governor vetoed the education portion of the state budget was in 1983. Gov. Bob Graham blasted fellow Democrats for their “willing acceptance of mediocrity.”Associated Press
Published May 23 2017
Updated May 23 2017

Every day, Gov. Rick Scott is getting a lot of advice.

School superintendents from Miami to Pensacola want him to trash the entire $23.7 billion public school budget that would increase spending $24 per pupil next year.

That would force Scott and the Legislature to start over in a special session, with the new fiscal year only six weeks away.

The last time an education-only veto happened was in 1983, when Gov. Bob Graham blasted his fellow Democrats for their "willing acceptance of mediocrity" in public education.

Graham dramatically vetoed the education budget after midnight when lawmakers rejected his call for more taxes, forcing school districts to start a new fiscal year with no new state money.

They kept the lights on with cash reserves, property taxes and loans, and Miami-Dade superintendent Leonard Britton said that was preferable to Tallahassee's "abandonment budget."

Britton told the Miami Herald he was not sure Graham had the nerve to pull off such a bold move, but he did.

The Legislature did not override Graham's veto.

After a special session and much wheeling and dealing, the governor got most of what he wanted.

Now it's Scott's turn.

A similar Scott veto would make him the toast of educators across the state, for the moment anyway. How could Democratic politicians, PTAs or teacher union leaders fault Scott for agreeing with them that schools were shortchanged?

But Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the two main architects of this budget, won't appreciate being portrayed by Scott as scheming in secret to punish innocent children.

So it's a safe bet that tensions in Tallahassee would get worse. Maybe a lot worse.

The K-12 budget of nearly $24 billion accounts for nearly one-third of the entire $82.4 billion budget, so if Scott is willing to go that far, why not go all the way and veto the whole thing?

After all, some back-bench House Democrats stand to get more out of this budget than Scott does.

A sweeping veto would remind people who's in charge.

If Republicans try to override his veto by two-thirds votes (likely in the House but a lot less likely in the Senate), Scott has a new reason to campaign against "politicians in Tallahassee," one of his favorite sound bites.

Scott, who's expected to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2018, began his first term in 2011 with a politically disastrous call for a 10 percent cut to public schools.

He later tried to make amends by proposing $2,500 raises for teachers. Their union, however, still backed Democrat Charlie Crist for governor in 2014. The same union, the Florida Education Association, will stand by Nelson next year, too.

As a potential Senate candidate, Scott has no serious Republican primary challenger, yet. But if he tacks to the left again, it will unleash more wrath from Corcoran, who could accuse Scott of pandering to a liberal union and siding with bloated school districts.

Words still matter in politics.

Scott has been roaming the state and driving home a disciplined message on his "Fighting for Florida's Future" tour, criticizing every aspect of the Legislature's work and accusing lawmakers of "turning their backs on their constituents."

Well, now.

How can he possibly sign a budget that he has spent so much time eviscerating?

For Scott, it's put-up-or-shut-up time. If he doesn't veto the budget, what was his fight all about?

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com and follow @stevebousquet.

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