Turns out that in an election year, Gov. Rick Scott doesn't mind spending taxpayer money. The governor on Monday signed into law the largest state budget ever while vetoing the smallest amount of spending since taking office. That leaves in place hundreds of millions in legislative special projects, many of which never received a full public vetting. This is a budget grounded more in Scott's re-election campaign than in his professed fiscal conservatism.
In a departure from previous years, Scott offered no public explanation about why he vetoed 110 projects totalling just $69 million. He did not hold a public ceremony to sign the $77.1 billion budget — $3 billion bigger than just a year ago. His office instead churned out news releases trumpeting the "It's Your Money Tax Cut Budget," a reference to $500 million in tax cuts.
The silence leaves it for anyone to guess why Scott, who says he wants to increase Florida's STEM economy, vetoed $750,000 for a proven program to teach algebra to middle school students started by SRI International in Pinellas County. It's the third year in a row he has vetoed money for a program tailored to the state's education and economic needs. Yet he left in place, among many other unvetted projects, $500,000 for kitchen renovations to the St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater. That is a nice return for Mahaffey operator and entrepreneur Bill Edwards, who contributed $1 million to Scott's re-election campaign.
Scott stripped $500,000 in funding for the Largo Cultural Center even as he let stand the same amount for a Dunedin Fine Art Center expansion, nearly $390,000 for the Palm Harbor Historical Society Museum and $2 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. He also let slide $10 million for a new performing arts and convention center in Wesley Chapel that House Speaker Will Weatherford added at the last minute for his hometown. But Scott vetoed $1.6 million to fight poverty in south St. Petersburg as part of the 2020 Plan, which had bipartisan support.
Scott and Republican legislators have boasted the 2014-15 budget represents record spending on education. There are new investments, like a combined $30 million for facilities for the University of South Florida, including for the USF St. Petersburg business college, the USF Heart Health Institute and the USF Morsani medical school. But state universities haven't made their way back from recent budget cuts even as Scott insisted tuition stay flat. And while public schools will spend more per student than when Scott took office, it is still less than the record from 2007-08, and construction money is still siphoned off to privately run charter schools.
A true fiscal conservative would have insisted lawmakers first adequately fund essentials like education before indulging in so much hometown cooking. Rather than use his veto pen to back up his rhetoric, Scott avoided making enemies as he hits the campaign trail.