TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis took a red pen to the state’s budget Thursday, slashing some of the top priorities of Republican lawmakers on the way to approving a record $109.9 billion budget for the state’s upcoming fiscal year.
With the state’s top Republican leaders standing behind him on a stage in The Villages, DeSantis derided some of their spending as “pork” while announcing more than $3 billion in vetoes.
$50 million for a new appellate courthouse desired by the state’s powerful Senate budget chair, Kelli Stargel?
$75 million for an oceanographic science center at the University of South Florida that was a top priority of the House speaker, Chris Sprowls?
As for Senate President Wilton Simpson’s priorities, DeSantis’ cuts included more than $300 million to acquire land for water projects in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project area and seven new positions at the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which Simpson is hoping to lead next year.
The cuts came despite Republican lawmakers delivering on a number of controversial DeSantis priorities this year, from immigration to voting. However, Republicans originally bucked DeSantis on his proposed congressional maps, which would eliminate two seats held by Black Democrats.
During Thursday’s bill signing, DeSantis said his decision to make deep cuts was because of “overspending” in Washington.
“We exercise that (veto) power very robustly in this budget, not because of legislators necessarily putting pork — there was some pork — but I think it was just because we don’t want to be in a situation where we’re repeating the mistakes of Washington by overspending,” DeSantis said.
Financially, DeSantis didn’t need to veto a penny. Lawmakers passed a balanced budget, as they’re required to do each year. The state also has record reserves, thanks in large part to billions of federal stimulus dollars from Washington, and tax revenues continue to beat the estimates each month.
The vetoes still leave the state with the largest spending plan in its history, providing DeSantis with enough money to deliver record tax breaks and steer millions into new initiatives aimed at leaving his ideological mark on his elections, immigration and education priorities.
And the vetoes represent just a small portion of the $112 billion budget lawmakers passed this year. The budget received bipartisan approval thanks, in part, to including big pay raises for state workers, bonuses for teachers and millions for water quality projects.
Large line-item vetoes
While DeSantis said the vetoes were the largest in the state’s history, they’re actually a fraction of the nearly $12 billion — including the entire K-12 education budget — former Gov. Rick Scott cut in 2017.
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Still, DeSantis cut numerous big-ticket items.
He cut $1 billion lawmakers set aside for an “inflation fund,” to help offset rising costs for state projects. In his veto letter, DeSantis wrote that the fund “could exacerbate inflation by promising more public sector funds to pay for more supplies of materials, while also competing with other projects throughout the state.”
He also eliminated a plan to spend $600 million over the next 30 years on a new H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute campus in Pasco County — Simpson’s home county — writing that it “inhibits budget flexibility.”
A proposal to buy two new state aircraft for $20 million was also axed, with DeSantis writing that it was an “inadvisable expense.” (In 2019, lawmakers spent $15 million to buy DeSantis a new state plane.)
But the vast majority of the governor’s cuts went unexplained, and it left some lawmakers angry.
One was $250,000 for a teacher recruitment program led by the nonprofit group Teach for America, which would have helped train and recruit educators who “commit to teaching in a low-income community, leading high-need public school classrooms.”
The other veto was of more than $276,000 for a Barry University program designed to increase the number of registered nurses in the state.
“The Governor vetoed a significant number of public safety, infrastructure, and quality of life projects,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said in a statement, noting that the projects will cost more when they eventually do get funded in future years because of inflation. “This demonstrates, yet again, the Governor chooses petty partisanship over sound fiscal policy.”
Other vetoes included:
- $1 million to Valencia College to create a feature film about the 1920 Ocoee Election Day Massacre, in which a white mob attacked and killed dozens of Black voters in the nation’s worst instance of Election Day violence
- $1 million for a food bank in Leon County, which has the state’s poorest and most food-insecure ZIP code, according to state Rep. Allison Tant, D-Tallahassee
- $2 million to help low-income women obtain long-acting birth control, which Simpson included in the budget despite DeSantis vetoing the money last year, too.
Targeting GOP priorities
DeSantis’ decision to cut the top priorities of Republican lawmakers while they were on stage together did not go unnoticed by political observers.
“What a pathetic display at the expense of many organizations and folks who put a lot of effort to run a difficult legislative appropriations gauntlet,” tweeted Rep. Nick Duran, D-Miami.
DeSantis’ pen was particularly harsh to Simpson, who is running to be the state’s commissioner of agriculture. DeSantis cut tens of millions of dollars in road projects and $35 million for a potential spring training stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays in Simpson’s Pasco County.
Stargel, who is running for Congress, worked for 2 years to get $50 million approved to create a new appellate district courthouse in her hometown of Lakeland. Although studies showed the new district wasn’t needed, the courthouse would have been a boon to Lakeland’s legal community and Stargel in particular, since her husband is an appellate court judge who commutes to the courthouse in Tampa.
Desantis also reversed GOP lawmakers on a plan aimed to punish local school districts that imposed mask mandates during the fall, writing in a letter that schools shouldn’t be penalized for a decision made by the district-level employees.
“I am somewhat befuddled by the letter,” texted state Rep. Randy Fine, R-Melbourne Beach, who led the effort to penalize the districts.
On stage Thursday, DeSantis told the cheering crowd of senior citizens that the vetoes were “making sure that we’re protecting your money.”
“They may not be clapping about that,” DeSantis then joked, gesturing to the lawmakers behind him, “but that’s just the way it goes.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the location of water projects vetoed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Those projects are in the Lake Okeechobee Watershed Restoration Project area, located north of the lake.