TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott extended an unexpected goodwill gesture to an uncooperative Legislature on Tuesday by saying he will veto a modest $256 million in line-item spending when the new state budget reaches his desk.
The unorthodox strategy was seen as a pre-emptive strike by Scott against a Legislature that had been prepared to fight against a much longer list of vetoes. That would have destroyed the shaky working relationship between Scott and his fellow Republicans who write the annual budget.
Even after Scott's priorities were rejected or marginalized by his fellow Republicans, the governor showed little evidence of retribution, and lawmakers praised him for a veto list that's about half the size of last year's.
"He's sending an olive branch," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, who noted that Miami-Dade County's lengthy list of projects remained mostly intact, unlike last year.
But Diaz added that it was no coincidence that Scott's vetoes totaled $256 million, very close to a $250 million fund for Scott to lure jobs to Florida that lawmakers rejected.
"The governor is extracting his pound of flesh," Diaz said.
Democrats had a less charitable view of Scott's strategy.
"He's trying to hide the fact that the Legislature ate his lunch," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader. "He's been beaten pretty badly."
On a day when the political universe was closely watching presidential primary voting in Florida and four other states, Scott released his list of doomed projects, the largest of which is a $55 million legislative raid on an economic development trust fund that lawmakers wanted to divert to other projects.
Scott's hit list includes after-school mentoring and youth crime-prevention programs, family counseling and inmate re-entry efforts, a new jail in De Soto County, a new roof for North Lauderdale City Hall and a cattlemen's arena in Hardee County.
The vetoes also target dozens of water-improvement projects across the state, $11 million for a performing arts education center at Pasco-Hernando State College, $10 million for "quiet zones" to limit train noise from the All Aboard Florida rail venture, and $3 million to bail out a Pasco County subdivision, Heritage Lake Estates, for a conservation easement that blocked construction of an unpopular apartment complex.
Also in Tampa Bay, Scott plans to veto $500,000 for a Web-based career assessment program that was championed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. But his other projects survived, such as $1 million for an East Lake Library expansion in Palm Harbor and $1 million for a dolphin pool at Clearwater's aquarium.
"I don't know what the hurry was, but I think they did a great job," Latvala said.
Less satisfied was Terry Boehm, director of the Pinellas Education Foundation, which had planned to use that $500,000 in career assessment funds to link high school students with jobs in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
"We were hopeful," Boehm said. "After all, he is the 'jobs governor.' "
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said that Scott's budget experts had been seeking details about local projects for weeks, and that had led Gaetz to think incorrectly that Scott was sharpening his veto pen.
"The fear was palpable that vetoes would be severe, deep and swift," Gaetz said. "Frankly, I am surprised."
Scott cannot make the vetoes stick until the Legislature sends him the budget and he transmits his veto message to the secretary of state. Until then, lawmakers said, Scott will face intense pressure to change his mind.
"I will be signing this budget into law as soon as the Florida Legislature delivers it to me and withholding approval for approximately $256.1 million in projects that do not provide a significant return on taxpayer investment," Scott said in a statement.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, criticized Scott's actions. He said he never had a chance to defend his projects: $8 million for land acquisition for Florida International University to expand its campus and $300,000 for West Miami water improvements.
"There was no opportunity to defend projects that I actually submitted," Fresen said. "I'm sure the governor will have an explanation as to what the rhyme or reason was. I certainly can't see them."
Scott scored valuable political points with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a leading candidate for governor in 2018.
A year ago, Putnam said he was "profoundly disappointed" that Scott vetoed a $2,000 pay raise for state forestry firefighters, whose average pay is $27,000 a year.
But when Scott reversed course without explanation and approved the raises Tuesday, Putnam said: "I thank Gov. Scott for his thoughtful consideration and support of many of our key priorities."
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, had predicted $500 million in line-item vetoes from Scott.
"It strikes me as a very reasonable level of vetoes," Lee said. "It implies to me that he believes it's a pretty good budget."
Lee said he never believed that a special session to override Scott's vetoes was likely, and he said it's even less likely now. To prompt an override, he said, Scott would have had to eliminate a pillar of the budget, such as the entire education budget or the entire budget for prisons.
"A veto override for what are essentially pork projects? You'd have a hard time getting a quorum," Lee said.
House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, noted that most Hillsborough County budget priorities survived, including $22.5 million to relocate the University of South Florida's medical school to downtown Tampa.
"That was critical," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I think this secures the med school's future."
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark and Mary Ellen Klas and Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Charlie Frago contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.