TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott's veto pen is looking more like a scalpel as signs point to him trimming a fraction of spending in a record-high $77.1 billion election-year budget.
Scott is expected to sign the budget by Tuesday, and it will be an opportunity to express his fiscal values as he seeks a second term.
His line-item vetoes are highly anticipated because Scott is running as a fiscal conservative and careful steward of tax dollars, but the budget on his desk is loaded with hundreds of millions in discretionary spending in every part of the state. Most projects were championed by Republicans whose support Scott will need on the campaign trail.
"I ran on accountability, so I'm going to look at the budget and try to make the best decisions for taxpayers," Scott told the Times/Herald. "It's their money and I want to make sure that we spend the money well."
If Scott vetoes much of the spending, he will offend Republican lawmakers who delivered on his priorities in the session that ended May 2. If he approves most of it, he will face criticism for rubber-stamping what some see as wasteful pork-barrel politics.
One of Scott's strongest allies in the Capitol, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, expects Scott to veto no more than $100 million, which would be the least in his four years as governor.
"That's an educated guess," chuckled Thrasher, who as chairman of Scott's re-election campaign is in steady contact with Scott and his advisers.
With a surplus of $1.2 billion, lawmakers were able to set aside $3 billion in reserves and had enough left for all kinds of projects, from a $350,000 memorial fountain for Addison Mizner in Palm Beach to $500,000 for a BMX Olympic training center in Oldsmar to $3 million for a tourism and nature center in Brooksville and $5 million for the private IMG sports academy in Bradenton.
Some Scott supporters stand to benefit from his decisions.
The Mahaffey Theater in downtown St. Petersburg is down for $500,000 to upgrade its catering kitchen, even though it did not formally apply for state money. A verbal request to a Pinellas lawmaker with a lot of sway over spending came from former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who works for Bill Edwards, the Pinellas entrepreneur whose firm runs the Mahaffey.
"He (Baker) reached out to me. We talked before the project went in," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who oversaw all House economic development spending. "I thought it was a worthwhile project based on what their track record is."
Edwards has contributed $1 million to Let's Get to Work, the political committee helping to fund Scott's re-election campaign. Edwards and Baker did not respond to requests for comment.
Hooper also helped steer $500,000 each to the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, the Dunedin Fine Arts Center and Largo Cultural Center. The Palm Harbor Historical Society Museum stands to get $387,753. All were budgeted after lawmakers funded a list of 29 projects ranked by a state cultural facilities review.
"I don't think we ever funded like we did this year," Hooper said. "I would be shocked if all of those projects get approved."
Miami-Dade, the state's most populous county, is poised to get the most discretionary spending, with more than 300 line items including $3.4 million for the Ludlum trail corridor; $2 million for SkyRise Miami, planned as an iconic high-rise observation tower; $1 million for the Munroe Marine Stadium in Miami; $500,000 for a Crime Watch program in Miami Gardens; and $500,000 for a foundation started by former Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning that helps children and families.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, noted that lawmakers cooperated with Scott in meeting his goal of $500 million in fee and tax cuts, including a rollback of auto tag fees that will save motorists $25 a year. The fee cuts reinforced Scott's reputation as a fiscal conservative, Gaetz said.
"Conservatives know that this governor is a conservative," Gaetz said. "There was a real tax cut, it was broad-based and it was done early."
In 2011, Scott's first year in office, he vetoed $615 million, but about half of that, $305 million, was spending authority for the Florida Forever land-buying program. The following year Scott vetoed $142 million and last year he axed $368 million from the current $74.1 billion budget.
Scott eliminated scores of lawmaker-sponsored projects in 2013 for various reasons. He said they were not part of the "core mission" of state government, steered money to specific providers, lacked performance standards or should be paid for with local tax dollars.
A longtime legislative observer, political scientist emeritus Darryl Paulson at USF St. Petersburg, said Scott risks looking mean-spirited if he swings a heavy veto ax this time.
"The Legislature bent over backwards to help the governor," Paulson said. "It's unlikely the governor is going to spit in their face."
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.