TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott campaigned against President Barack Obama's "failed stimulus" program — yet the freshman politician kept nearly $370 million of the federal cash in the Florida budget he signed last week.
Scott's decision to keep the stimulus money stands out in a year when the governor touted record budget vetoes of up to $615 million. He emphasized the vetoes of "wasteful" spending at a Thursday event that featured a campaign-style "Promises Made, Promises Kept" banner.
But as he ran for office last summer, Scott said he "would fight all the stimulus money." He also told reporters, "I would have figured out how to balance the budget without it."
Asked Tuesday why he appeared to reverse himself by keeping stimulus money, Scott didn't specifically answer.
"I think the stimulus was not good for our state, made us more dependent on the federal government," he said, echoing a budget-signing letter he issued last week. "I think that we've got to watch how we spend money. As you know, in the budget, I focused very much on how we spend our money, stopping the growth of debt in our state and making our state less dependent on the federal government."
The stimulus money Scott and Republican legislators approved touches every corner of the state: $290 million to improve electronic medical records, $4.2 million to aid disadvantaged children, $3.2 million for fighting wildfires, $12.5 million for drug courts, $8.6 million for county health departments, $1 million to fight infectious diseases, and $4.4 million to help public defenders and prosecutors.
The bulk of the stimulus, called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, was appropriated by the Legislature in previous years. The act is specifically referenced 66 times in the budget.
For 61 of the line items, the Legislature appropriated a specific amount of stimulus money that totals almost $343 million.
In five other sections, the Legislature re-appropriates previous money but doesn't list the exact amount. According to the Senate, those sections total about $26.8 million.
In all, Florida is on pace to have spent about $24.2 billion of the $787 billion stimulus package. Florida's share would have been higher, but Scott unexpectedly refused $2.4 billion to build a high-speed rail line linking Tampa and Orlando. Like the rejection of the rail money, he and lawmakers could have refused to spend the $370 million in federal funds.
Unlike in the current and prior budget years, none of the stimulus money will directly help the state balance its $69.1 billion budget. That enables Scott to make good on his campaign promise to not use "one-time money" to balance the budget. Still, without the money, government would be slightly smaller in Florida.
Most of the money he tacitly approved amounts to stimulus leftovers and pass-through grants that help various governmental agencies with specific tasks, such as the $41,000 that the Office of Statewide Prosecution has awarded to the Hillsborough County state attorney to prosecute gangs. A representative of Attorney General Pam Bondi, a former Hillsborough prosecutor, said the program has been effective.
In Miami-Dade, the State Attorney's Office said the $2.3 million it received is designated for prosecuting mortgage fraud. Still, the federal money relieves pressure on the state budget and makes it easier for the Miami-Dade office to do its job.
"The major expense of criminal prosecutions is always staff money that allows you to field prosecutors and support staff. And that helps you fight the crime," said Mike Griffith, a spokesman for the office.
The biggest chunk of the money, about 85 percent, is earmarked for Medicaid hospitals, doctors and other providers to help them make electronic medical records.
The Democratic leader in the state Senate, Nan Rich of Weston, sits on her chamber's health budget committee and said the electronic records are vital to improving health care in the state. Rich said Scott's decision to keep the stimulus shows that the money is needed.
"I'm very happy he didn't keep his promise on the stimulus," Rich chuckled.
"It shows it's harder to govern than to use rhetoric on the campaign trail. It's easy to say it — that you're going to eliminate it. But then, when you have to cut, it's not so easy to give up money that belongs to Florida."
Scott has been accused of hypocrisy over the stimulus before. During the campaign, he was attacked for bashing the stimulus while holding a financial interest in a telecommunications company that won a stimulus grant.
Scott made some tough cuts in the budget Thursday when he vetoed money for environmental programs, seniors and veterans. Scott boasted at the time of going through "3,036 line items in the budget. I know this because I looked at every single line item."
On Tuesday, his first day to take a few questions from reporters in the state capital, Scott didn't explain why he decided to keep the stimulus money and said he couldn't recall the line items for it.
"You go through every line you can and figure out where it builds jobs, where it hurts jobs. And that's sort of the filter I went through," Scott responded.
Does that mean he kept stimulus money he equated with job creation? Scott wouldn't say.
"It's a mistake. That's taxpayer money," Scott responded. "And I think we have to watch how we spend all that money, both at the state level and at the federal level."