Gov. Jeb Bush signed his name Thursday to $1-billion in budget cuts he calls "fair and responsible" but which opponents say will set Florida further back in education and human services.
By affixing his signature to the deepest budget cuts in a decade, Bush brought an end to four months of sometimes-clumsy legislative maneuvering and two special sessions. He also invites tougher criticism from Democrats, who hope to use the cuts as a wedge issue with voters in 2002 to undermine Bush's boasts of making the schools better.
"The truth is, public education in Florida was limping before and these cuts will be crippling," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Rossin, D-Royal Palm Beach.
Bush dismissed the criticism, saying his opponents offer only higher taxes as a way to avoid budget cuts, though Rossin and others suggested eliminating existing tax breaks for restaurants and sports stadiums.
"If we had done nothing, or raised taxes, or just used reserves, those three options would be far worse," Bush said of the special session that ended Dec. 6. "This was a hard-fought, intense effort, but the Legislature should be very proud of it."
Bush did not agree with all the Legislature did.
He again risked angering Senate President John McKay, R-Bradenton, by vetoing $750,000 for New College in Sarasota, a McKay priority. The honors liberal arts college broke off from the University of South Florida and became a state university last year, and this is the second time Bush has vetoed transition funds for the college.
Bush said it was unfair for New College to avoid absorbing the same proportional 4.2 percent cut as every other university.
McKay said through his spokeswoman that Bush's veto shows the need for the Legislature to "work harder" at persuading Bush to help the college stand on its own. But with a grueling regular session six weeks away, some colleagues see larger implications.
"You'd be sticking your head in the sand if you didn't understand that this impacts the (Senate) president," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee for education. "The president and governor have had some differences of opinion as to how things should be done, and this is another area of disagreement."
Even Bush, sensitive to a perception that he was punishing McKay, said: "Just for the record, this is not related to anything but policy."
In all, Bush vetoed $8-million in cuts. He restored 409 probation officer jobs that lawmakers wanted cut from the prison system to save money. Bush said it would have risked public safety.
The veto of the probation officer cuts drew praise from the probation officers' bargaining agent, the Police Benevolent Association, a union that worked in favor of Bush's election in 1998.
Bush also restored $2.8-million to youth mentoring programs by such groups as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the Boys and Girls Clubs and Take Stock in Children.
And the governor vetoed a program, supported by his health care agency, that would have expanded a project requiring about 7,000 diabetics on Medicaid to order medical products by mail. The expansion would have allowed the diabetics to get all prescriptions by mail, but Bush said the program should not be expanded until its effectiveness is proven.
Bush said even after the $309-million in new cuts in classroom spending, Florida is spending $31 more per student this year than last, even after factoring in the number of new students. But Democrats say that ignores inflation, and they say the state wasn't spending enough on students before, even when their party ran the state.
Bush continues to say that overall, the $48-billion budget was not really cut, because the total this year remains larger than last.
"Overall, in the broad categories of government, we are seeing a reduction in the rate of growth of government, not a cutback," Bush said.
If early reviews are any indication, that argument faces a tough sell. In conservative Lee County, parents angry at cuts in school spending packed a legislative delegation hearing, The Fort Myers News-Press reported Thursday. When Rep. Jeff Kottkamp, R-Cape Coral, referred to cuts as "myths," parents shook their heads and softly booed him, the paper said.
Florida fell from 24th to 38th among the 50 states in the 1990s in per pupil public school spending, according to a recent St. Petersburg Times analysis that used data from the U.S. Census, U.S. Department of Education and various state agencies.
Deeper cuts could be ahead. To salvage some basic programs for the rest of this fiscal year, legislators did some creative bookkeeping.
Gov. Jeb Bush used his line-item veto power 16 times Thursday to block $8-million in spending cuts by the Legislature, and, in the case of New College in Sarasota, spending increases. Here are highlights:
409 probation officers - $5-million
Child mentoring programs - $1.3-million
Big Brothers/Big Sisters - $1-million
Boys and Girls Clubs - $500,000
Dues to national associations - $182,170
Domestic violence data review - $179,260
New College, Sarasota + $751,438
Source: Governor's Office
_ Times researchers Caryn Baird and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.