That didn't take long. Just four days after the Florida Legislature passed a state budget for 2015-16, Gov. Rick Scott took a sledgehammer to it Tuesday and vetoed $461 million in projects and programs. For a governor with low voter approval ratings and few allies in Tallahassee, this is an unsubtle reminder that he still wields considerable power as the state's chief executive — no matter how isolated and unpopular he has become at just the start of his second term.
As usual, Scott won't win any style points. He signed the $78 billion budget into law and issued his veto list with no apparent consultation with lawmakers beforehand. He acted with little public notice and in private, which is highly unusual for governors on these occasions. There are disturbing threads running through a veto list that includes only the briefest of explanations, such as a lack of interest in investing in viable programs at nonprofit hospitals such as All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg and in worthy social services. As Senate President Andy Gardiner fumed, "It is unfortunate that the messaging strategy needed to achieve the governor's political agenda comes at the expense of the most vulnerable people in our state."
There was plenty of retribution aimed at senators who voted to accept federal Medicaid expansion money over the governor's objections — including Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, who had been one of Scott's few defenders. Latvala's vetoed projects included $2 million for the Tampa Innovation Alliance to bring new private investment to the struggling area near the University of South Florida, $300,000 for a water taxi to Clearwater Beach and $1 million for the East Lake Library expansion in Palm Harbor. Yet in Pasco County, Scott left untouched money for a police shooting range upgrade sought by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Corcoran's ally, Sheriff Chris Nocco, but vetoed money for housing for the homeless and an elderly nutrition kitchen.
Regardless of Scott's motivations, the Legislature was due for a hard slap upside the head. It squandered a budget surplus of more than $1 billion, replaced more than $400 million in federal dollars for charity care with state dollars and failed to carry out the will of the voters who approved Amendment 1 to allocate more money for land-buying and conservation. In a secret late-night spending splurge, legislative leaders stuffed hundreds of millions of pet projects and programs into the budget at the last minute with little or no justification.
Here are five areas where Scott sent the right message with his budget vetoes:
• $15 million for planning and designing a campus for the University of Central Florida in downtown Orlando. The governor said he vetoed the project because it circumvented the Board of Governors' review process. He did not touch the $17 million for relocating the USF medical school to downtown Tampa and the $12.3 million for completion of USF St. Petersburg's College of Business, which were well vetted by the board.
• $2 million for the private, for-profit IMG Academy in Bradenton, whose lobbyists include Corcoran's brother and former House speakers. This may be collateral damage, because millions have previously gone to IMG and this item was included in a budget line with many other projects. Scott said these projects circumvented the state review process, and this one never should have received public money.
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• $10 million for "quiet zone" improvements expected to help silence complaints about noise from the private All Aboard Florida passenger rail line in South Florida. Lawmakers approved $10 million for the same purpose last year, and there is no need to spend more public money on this private project. Scott said he vetoed the project because it circumvented the Transportation Department's work program.
• $26 million for dozens of local water projects that should be funded by the communities that will benefit from them. Scott cut projects from the Panhandle to Miami, or one-third of the $77 million that lawmakers set aside for local water projects.
• $27.3 million from a water farming project that amounts to corporate welfare for some of Florida's biggest landowners. Though the governor spared $5 million for continued water farming in the budget, South Florida water managers may finally have to come up with a comprehensive and efficient approach to storing water for cleanup and recharge efforts.
While these examples reflect a wise use of the governor's veto pen, this was a shotgun approach aimed at winning praise from the most conservative Republican voters and Americans for Prosperity. That is the Koch brothers' organization that has become more active in Tallahassee and canvassed some neighborhoods of Republican senators who supported accepting federal Medicaid expansion money. Scott also used his vetoes to slash projects at private colleges because they dared to raise tuition, and at nonprofit hospitals where he questions their rate of return. It was a scorched earth approach that spared no area, from libraries to road projects, from Teach for America to Junior Achievement, from restoring a black church to buying a new research vessel to replace an aging one used by the Florida Institute of Oceanography at USFSP.
The most vocal protests about Scott's vetoes came from his fellow Republicans. Latvala complained the governor had "declared war on the Legislature.'' Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam criticized Scott for denying small raises to state firefighters while allowing them for some Highway Patrol troopers. Gardiner, the Senate president, listed millions vetoed for charity medical clinics and new residency programs.
These are the Republicans who helped Scott narrowly win re-election. Now they are suffering the consequences, just like the rest of Florida.