The governor who claimed he's not a typical Tallahassee politician demonstrated again Thursday he is no different at all. Gov. Rick Scott used his line-item veto power in the state budget to protect a powerful legislator, punish some others and advance his own narrow ideology over the best interests of Florida. Facing abysmal public approval ratings, Scott even attempted to recast himself as a champion of more money for public schools when he had called for deeper cuts than the Legislature approved. Just another pandering politician.
Scott's claims of striking a record $615 million in budget vetoes is an illusion. Nearly half of that total — $305 million — came from eliminating spending authority for buying Florida Forever conservation lands. But that money would only have been spent had the state raised that much through surplus land sales, a highly unlikely proposition.
Scott was even more disingenuous in claiming he was whacking roughly $165 million in higher education building money because the projects would require the selling of bonds and "Florida is borrowing beyond its self-imposed constraints." But that's not true. State law wouldn't allow bonds to be sold if that would exceed those limits. And a true fiscal conservative would have allowed routine maintenance money to go forward to ensure buildings at state colleges and universities don't deteriorate.
Instead, Scott vetoed maintenance money but maintained funding for perhaps the biggest boondoggle of all in the 2011-12 state budget: $35 million sought by Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, to radically expand the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus into USF Polytechnic. Scott says the new campus would help train high-wage workers in technical fields. But this was about satisfying Alexander, arguably the state's most powerful legislator.
That gift is even more indefensible against the backdrop of other vetoes in the budget that will disproportionately impact the state's poorest Floridians, including a few million in local health care and at-risk youth projects. Scott vetoed nearly $7 million for economic renewal efforts in the Panhandle in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. And he eliminated millions for medical research and water projects, including $10 million to restore the St. Johns River.
Some of Scott's vetoes were smart. Scott wisely struck two studies, totaling $800,000, on legislators' ill-conceived plans to split the Florida Supreme Court in two and allow destination casinos. He also struck dozens of so-called "turkeys," hometown projects pushed by legislators. Scott weighed restoring a short-sighted $150 million raid on the state transportation trust fund — which means fewer private-sector road-building jobs — but decided public schools needed the money more.
Such newfound support for public school money is too little, too late. But it suggests Scott has heard the complaints of Floridians who are watching their local school districts lay off teachers, increase some class sizes and reduce services. That's progress for a Republican governor who pays little attention to any views except those espoused by the most conservative wing of his party.