TALLAHASSEE — Days after attending the funeral of a state trooper, Gov. Rick Scott said Tuesday that he will veto a bill that would allow drivers to go 75 miles an hour on Florida highways.
"I'm going to stand with law enforcement," Scott said. "I want everybody to stay safe. I don't want anyone to be injured, so I'm going to veto that bill."
Scott declared his opposition five days after he went to the funeral of a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who was struck and killed by a passing pickup truck while investigating an accident on Interstate 75 in Ocala. The victim, Chelsea Renee Richard, died a week before her 31st birthday and on the day that her boyfriend, also a trooper, planned to ask her to marry him.
Richard, a nine-year veteran of the FHP, is survived by a 4-year-old son. Two others, a tow truck driver and his friend, also were killed in the May 3 crash.
At Richard's funeral last Thursday, another trooper, Tod Cloud, urged Scott to veto the bill, saying it "wasn't a bright idea" for the state to promote faster driving and that people "do not drive with common sense" on I-75.
Contrary to pushing for higher speeds, Cloud said the state should reduce the speed limit on I-75 to 55 mph when the road surface is wet from rain.
Scott said Cloud made a "convincing" case, adding: "He was very passionate about it. He's very concerned about troopers being out there on the highway and people driving too fast. By doing this, we're doing the right thing."
To mark the start of National Police Week, the Florida State Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and other police groups have designated June as "Move Over, Slow Down, Save a Life" month in Florida.
AAA Auto Club South praised Scott's decision, saying it "will undoubtedly prevent injuries and save lives on our roadways."
The nation's largest auto safety group had sought a meeting with Scott or his staff to push for a veto, but it did not occur.
In a May 1 letter to Scott, AAA senior vice president Kevin Bakewell noted that Florida has a "free pass" law that allows motorists to travel 5 miles above posted speed limits without risking a ticket.
"Increasing the speed limit creates a moving target for motorists, and many will feel it is safe to drive 85 mph if the speed limit is set at 75 mph and they know they can't be fined until at least 80."
AAA said a majority of the 16 states that have raised the speed limit above 70 have speed-related auto fatalities above the national average of 30 percent.
Florida has welcomed nearly 100 million tourists in the past year and is home to large populations of both senior and young drivers.
Public sentiment was running heavily against raising the limit, according to figures compiled by the governor's office.
"People already drive too fast and like idiots," Kenneth Smith of Brandon wrote in an email to Scott. "We do not need to give them excuses to drive even faster and worse than they already do."
Albert Rosse of Palm City wrote to Scott: "It is not enjoyable to drive on our highways because people are traveling at 80 to 90 mph. These same people are on the phone and texting."
Rosse said higher speed limits will cause more accidents and deaths and "the insurance companies will use this to raise our rates."
Other drivers cited the expense of replacing highway speed limit signs, threats to animals and a decline in fuel efficiency.
The bill (SB 392) was co-sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. It would have allowed faster driving on nearly 1,500 miles of interstates including long stretches of I-75, I-95, I-10, I-4, Florida's Turnpike and the Suncoast Parkway.
In addition, current 65 mph speed limits would have risen to 70 and limits of 60 would have risen to 65.
Supporters said the bill only gave state highway engineers the discretion to set "safe and advisable" speed limits on interstate highways.
The bill passed the Senate 27-11 and the House 58-56, the closest House floor vote of the 2014 session. The close vote also provided Scott, who needs the support of his fellow Republicans in his reelection bid, with political cover for a veto.
A total of 17 House Republicans voted against the bill, including such conservative stalwarts as Reps. Dennis Baxley of Ocala, Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights and Ray Pilon of Sarasota, a retired sheriff's deputy.
Florida would have been the first state east of the Mississippi with a 75 mph speed limit on so many lane miles of highway (Maine allows a 75 mph limit on one rural stretch of Interstate 95).
It's unusual for a governor to promise a veto of bill not yet on his desk, and Scott acknowledged on Tuesday that there are "times I'd like to go faster."
But Scott had sensed mounting opposition from law enforcement, even though no police organizations had formally opposed the bill.
The support of the Florida Sheriffs Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and similar groups is highly prized in a statewide election.
"I've been to too many law enforcement funerals," Scott said. "There's always a young child involved."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.