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DeSantis cuts money for Black history, gun violence prevention from budget

DeSantis cut programs in the district of a senator who endorsed Donald Trump for president.
 
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives Tuesday, March 7, 2023, at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published June 15, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis took his veto pen to the state budget on Thursday, scratching off millions of dollars in programs to address gun violence and Black history — and millions more in a district where a key Republican senator endorsed his presidential primary opponent, Donald Trump.

DeSantis vetoed about $30 million in projects, including $20 million for a University of South Florida nursing campus, in the Sarasota area represented by Sen. Joe Gruters, the former chairperson of the Republican Party of Florida.

Gruters late Thursday lashed out at DeSantis, who is running for president, saying in a text message that “the governor is clearly upset I endorsed Donald Trump for President, and so he took it out on the people of Sarasota County.”

Gruters said it was a sign of the difference between DeSantis and the former president, who understands “that people come first.”

“The governor clearly sees politics differently,” Gruters said. “It’s mean-spirited acts like this that are defining him here and across the country.”

Overall, DeSantis was sparing with his veto pen, issuing line-item vetoes on about $510 million in projects across the state out of a $117 billion budget that was unanimously approved by the state Legislature in May.

Last year, he cut a record $3.3 billion from a $110 billion budget — including many of the priorities of Republican leaders, stunning observers.

This year, DeSantis cut numerous diversity and social programs while preserving billions of dollars to carry out his conservative political agenda.

During a Thursday news conference at a Fort Pierce yacht club, DeSantis didn’t mention the vetoes, which his office released several hours later.

He justified the size of the state budget by blasting spending in other states and the federal government.

“We’re good fiscal stewards,” he said. “We want to be a good place to be a citizen ... not only by taxing lightly but also by spending reasonably.”

Cuts to Black history and gun violence prevention

Although this year’s touch was lighter, he still cut millions in programs throughout the state.

As GOP lawmakers pushed forward a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit, Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, worked to secure $5 million to fund groups working to end community gun violence.

DeSantis vetoed it. Rouson said he was disappointed, saying that the state could see more gun violence with the permitless carry bill taking effect July 1.

“It makes sense to expand programs that are actually doing the work to prevent more gun violence,” Rouson said.

DeSantis also vetoed funding for projects that promote aspects of Black history, an action that is consistent with the governor’s yearslong push to restrict how racism and other aspects of history can be taught in schools and workplaces.

The governor eliminated $160,000 in funding for a Black History Month celebration in Orlando called the 1619 Fest, whose theme this year was to bring awareness to the health disparities Black people face in America. DeSantis also cut $200,000 in funding for Florida’s Black Music Legacy, a project designed to highlight the state’s contributions to Black music.

Last year, DeSantis vetoed $1 million for 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.

Numerous other programs were also cut, including:

  • More than $3.6 million for opioid treatment and research programs
  • 17 drainage improvement projects across the state
  • $6.4 million to repair or renovate 21 public broadcasting stations across the state

DeSantis’ spokespeople did not respond to questions about why the programs were cut.

But Democrats, who voted unanimously for the state budget, blasted the governor for cutting millions in social programs.

“Budgets aren’t just numbers on spreadsheets, they’re a reflection of our values and priorities,” House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said in a statement. “Ron DeSantis and his veto pen made Florida worse off today.”

Record spending plan

Fiscally, DeSantis didn’t have to cut anything. Booming tax revenues and billions of dollars in federal aid have allowed lawmakers and DeSantis to spend freely while assigning a record $15.3 billion to reserves.

The 2023-24 fiscal budget for the state is a record $116.5 billion, 28% more than DeSantis’ first state budget in 2019-20.

Florida TaxWatch, the business-backed budget watchdog organization based in Tallahassee, urged the governor to veto 38 projects that were inserted into the budget during the negotiations process by House and Senate leaders. The money is handed down by leaders on “sprinkle lists,” and the projects are often used as leverage for late-session votes and dealmaking.

TaxWatch said in a statement that “these lists diminish confidence in the budget process and should be discontinued.”

In a nod to House and Senate leaders, the governor left 29 of the late insertions in the budget, while targeting only nine worth about $11.5 million, including:

  • $400,000 for the Herzing University nursing lab and training center Simulation Training Center
  • $111,006 for the City of Hallandale Beach - Austin Hepburn Senior Mini Center
  • $2.5 million for Tampa Bay Water Morris Bridge Wellfield improvements
  • $500,000 for the 1st Avenue North and 25th Street Pedestrian Safety project in St. Petersburg
  • $5 million for a road at the Moffitt Cancer Center Life Sciences Campus

DeSantis, as with most governors, has always used the budget as a political tool, but this year he took it to a new level as he runs for president.

NBC News reported, and the governor’s office confirmed, that DeSantis’ chief of staff, James Uthmeier, as well as other staff members, were actively involved in making fundraising calls to benefit his presidential campaign by soliciting donations from Tallahassee lobbyists — some with clients who were waiting to see if projects they supported got vetoed.

Billions in DeSantis priorities

The budget this year put a premium on expanding state spending in areas that previous GOP administrations had failed to fund.

Lawmakers expanded school vouchers, reserving $2.2 billion to offer every K-12 school-age child in Florida a voucher or education saving account, regardless of family income. Social programs that long had been shaved thin by decades of Republican policies received millions in new money.

And Democrats praised the inclusion of $20 million to expand the health insurance program for low-income children, as well as adding nearly $80 million to serve several hundred people waiting for Medicaid services, $7.7 million to study food insecurity in Florida, more than $2 million to boost the call center to apply for state assistance, and a record $711 million for affordable-housing projects.

But the budget also injects millions into shoring up conservative ideology in Florida’s colleges and universities — and millions more for DeSantis’ priorities as he runs for president.

There is $30 million for the new Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education, a conservative think tank affiliated with the University of Florida. The budget includes more than $34 million to remake New College of Florida into a bastion of conservative ideals, similar to Hillsdale College, a private Christian school in Michigan.

Lawmakers also assigned $12 million — on top of the nearly $8 million left over from last year — to fly migrants around the country. Another $109 million is going to equip DeSantis’ fledgling Florida State Guard with planes, boats and police powers.

More than $10 million is also allocated to various agencies to defend the administration from the inevitable lawsuits that will challenge the constitutionality of his policies.