Record $615 Million Slashed From Florida Budget

By: Brandon Larrabee and Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Brandon Larrabee and Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, May 27, 2011 -

Saying lawmakers had approved a budget weighted down with “short-sided, frivolous, wasteful” projects, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed a record $615 million from the once nearly $70 billion spending plan. The moves pleased Scott’s grass-roots, tea party allies but irritated some influential lawmakers.

Speaking to an event at The Villages that had all the trappings of a political rally, Scott called for the Legislature to plow the money from the vetoes into K-12 education -- even though lawmakers cut far less from public schools than Scott’s original proposal in February.

“Let’s turn these short-sided, frivolous, wasteful spending programs into long-term investments into the future of Florida’s workforce,” Scott said. “By doing this, we are prioritizing our children and our grandchildren’s education over special interests, paying as we go and living within a budget.”

The record veto number -- aimed at encouraging the small-government activists who helped Scott beat the Republican establishment in last year’s GOP primary -- was significantly inflated by axing $305 million in authorized spending for the Florida Forever land-conservation program, as long as the state could generate the money from the sale of surplus lands.

That actual money wasn’t really in the budget – and most of it wasn’t likely to be either. Florida Forever supporters believed those surplus land sales would generate as little as $5 million to $10 million.

“It was not a major source of money,” said Eric Draper, executive director of Audubon of Florida. “It does not make sense for the governor to veto that. It certainly doesn’t make sense that he would then claim that as some sort of budget reduction.”

Draper said conservationists had hoped whatever money could be provided for the program could keep Florida Forever running until better times could lead to more funding for land conservation.

“Gov. Scott has taken a program that was struggling and kicked it to the curb,” he said.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, suggested Scott’s comments on education were disingenuous, given that less than $100 million of Scott’s vetoes came in general revenue that could easily be shifted to education by the Legislature.

“What is more surprising is the Governor’s sudden emphasis on K-12 education,” Cannon said in a statement issues by his office. “ ... It would have been helpful if the Governor had shared this new found emphasis with us before the budget was finalized.”

Democrats were less kind about Scott’s claim that he was signing a “jobs budget.”

“Only tea partiers under the control of billionaire right wingers could cheer such propaganda,” Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, said in a withering statement about the signing. “Only the supporters of voodoo economics could honestly believe that firing 4,500 state workers followed by thousands more public school teachers in a state already drowning in pink slips will somehow create jobs.”

Scott used his line-item veto to cut $164 million worth of university and college construction projects.

The projects were predominantly funded using bonds backed with revenues from a utilities tax. Scott said he was concerned about adding more bond debt, and the negative impact that might have on the state’s rating.

“Florida is borrowing beyond its self-imposed constraints and taking on debt that it should not,” Scott said.

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan issued a statement Thursday saying Scott had raised “compelling questions about how the state addresses funding for the construction of much-needed classrooms, labs and research facilities.”

University of Central Florida lobbyist Daniel Holsenbeck called the Scott vetoes “not surprising.” UCF was one of the hardest hit schools, with $21.3 million in money for repairs and new construction axed.

“We are disappointed, but we certainly respect his opinion and we will not stop working on getting these projects funded,” Holsenbeck said.

Holsenbeck said UCF needs money to pay for the construction of a classroom building, for instance. Without it, the university has to delay needed construction and squeeze more students into the same number of rooms.

But perhaps the most expensive budget line-item for college construction projects was saved. The University of South Florida polytechnic campus, in Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander’s home district, was protected from Scott’s veto pen, though other USF projects were nixed.

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, has been a strong advocate for the campus and was angered last year when funding for the campus was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

Scott defended the $35 million expenditure in his veto message, saying the new campus focuses on the “high-tech fields of the future,” and will help ease the state university system’s “demand for access.”

On another closely-watched item, the governor declined to veto a $150 million raid of the state’s road-building fund, blaming it on lawmakers’ decision to use the money to plug holes in public school funding.

“To me, it wasn’t much of a choice,” Scott said at The Villages. “We are putting that $150 million into education.”

Bob Burleson, head of the Florida Transportation Builders’ Association, called for lawmakers to come up with a way to restore the funding.

“By deliberately making the STTF raid veto-proof, they have tied Governor Scott’s hands and are responsible for the potential elimination of thousands of Florida jobs,” Burleson said.

Scott cut down multimillion dollar projects across the state, some of them seemingly politically appealing. He slashed $12 million in funding for the National Veteran’s Homeless Support Group, $10 million for the restoration of the St. Johns River and $6 million in economic aid for the Panhandle in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster.

He also sliced a series of smaller-ticket items that he and allies said weren’t critical in hard times, from $400,000 to study casino gambling to $250,000 to craft a plan for rainwater collection at state prisons.

“Where I’m from, rainwater can be caught with a $2 bucket,” Scott said.

Almost immediately, questions began cropping up about whether lawmakers might overturn Scott’s decision -- either next year or in a special session before the Legislature returns in January for an early session centered on redistricting.

“Over the coming weeks I will visit with senators statewide as we carefully examine the Governor’s vetoes and the budget as a whole,” said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “As elected representatives of the people of the state of Florida, it is our duty to thoroughly review the Governor’s decisions while considering the wide-ranging needs of our diverse state.”

Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, told the capitol bureau for the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he would like to see the Legislature hold a special session to smooth out “rough edges” in education and health-care funding.

But Katie Betta, a spokesman for Cannon, told the papers the speaker had “no plans to call a special session at this time.”


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