Scott vetoes nearly $400 million from budget

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, shown in this April 22, 2013 file photo, has signed Florida's $74.1 billion state budget. (AP Photo/Steve Cannon)

Published: Monday, May 20, 2013 at 11:19 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 20, 2013 at 5:11 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott, who had a tough time winning cooperation this past year from the Republican-led Legislature, struck back on Monday by vetoing nearly $400 million from the state's new budget.

Area leaders breathed a sigh of relief, however, as few area projects were among the governor's vetoes — but among those vetoed were $625,000 for the Tumblin' Creek stormwater project, $305,000 for the rehabilitation of sanitary sewer line segments in Williston and $500,000 for a University of Florida-produced documentary film on St. Augustine.

Scott praised the overall budget — which now stands at roughly $74.1 billion — because it includes spending increases in areas such as education. The budget, for example, includes $480 million that is aimed at handing out pay raises for teachers.

"We made strategic investments in this budget, while holding the line on spending that does not give Florida taxpayers a positive return on investment," Scott wrote in a message accompanying his list of vetoes.

But the GOP governor also took aim at some of his fellow Republicans as he axed $368 million from the final budget.

His vetoes wiped out millions for college buildings, health care programs and even money for supplemental programs for veterans. Many of the vetoes deleted money for projects targeted for legislators' hometowns.

Scott, who met briefly with reporters, defended his rationale by saying he wanted to make sure that projects included in the budget helped create jobs, improved education or kept government efficient.

"I'm responsible for 19.2 million people," Scott said. "I'm not responsible for one region by itself."

Gainesville's Tumblin' Creek stormwater project will need to find additional funding sources after the governor's veto, in which he cited an insignificant return for the investment of state money.

That project is planned to reduce the level of nitrates and suspended solids in the water flowing through the creek and into Biven's Arm, Public Works Director Teresa Scott said. Now in the early stages of design, the project would include the restoration of wetlands and the construction of a sediment trap at the end of Tumblin' Creek, Scott said.

The city had anticipated starting construction in January.

Scott also vetoed $14 million for a new technology and science building at Gulf State College that had been backed by Senate President Don Gaetz and a 3 percent tuition increase for college and university students that had been championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford. Despite the vetoes, both Weatherford and Gaetz were muted in their official responses to Scott's actions.

"While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 95 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product," Weatherford said in a statement.

Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, however blasted the governor for "misunderstanding" how local projects help communities.

"As he sits high and looks down low, he seems to be under the mistaken impression that all good ideas for job creation originate in the governor's mansion," Smith said in a statement.

Alachua County government focused more on specific bills in the Legislature than on chasing appropriations dollars during this legislative session, but Communications Coordinator Mark Sexton said he was pleased to see the county do so well overall in securing funding for various projects.

The county as a whole received about $687.8 million in appropriations funding within the budget, much of which went to UF projects, he said. That's nearly $700 million worth of economic activity within Alachua County, regardless of whether the money is going to UF or the city of Gainesville or any other locally based entity.

"So one way or another, these dollars are coming to Alachua County," Sexton said. "Obviously, the lion's share of that is to the University of Florida, you know, which is the main economic engine in Alachua County, so we're very happy about that."

The $20.3 billion in total funding approved for K-12 education includes a $10.7 million increase for Alachua County over last year's budget, said Keith Birkett, assistant superintendent for planning and budget for Alachua County Public Schools.

But the increase, he said, is primarily covering growth.

"There's no additional dollars for any enhancements," Birkett said. "So it's more of a continuance budget than anything."

Putting those enhancements on hold isn't ideal, but at least the district won't see more cuts this year, officials said.

"We've just been hanging on by our fingernails for such a long time," Alachua County School Board Chairwoman Eileen Roy said. "We haven't had the luxury of considering anything extra."

The board hasn't been optimistic about the possibility of extra money in the budget and hadn't made any prospective plans to spend it, she said. But if the money had been there, the board might have considered pouring the extra funding into such programs as Head Start and career/technical education, she said.

Scott on Monday also signed 16 bills that accompanied the budget (SB 1500) including one that sets aside $3.3 million a year starting in 2015 to help cities and counties to spruce up or build new ballparks that are used by Major League Baseball teams for spring training.

The governor also signed into law a bill reauthorizing the state's popular back-to-school sales tax holiday in August. Shoppers will not have to pay sales taxes while purchasing clothes, school supplies and computers. The computer tax break applies only to computers worth $750 or less.

This year marked the first time in seven years that legislators had a budget surplus with which to work. They were able to use the extra cash to hand out state worker pay raises, set aside money for Everglades restoration and reduce the waiting list for those with developmental disabilities seeking state services.

But lawmakers also ignored some of Scott's recommendations or altered them. Scott wanted to give a flat $2,500 increase to all teachers, but legislators instead tied the raise to performance evaluations.

Scott also had warned legislators about raising tuition rates, and it was not a surprise that he decided to veto the 3 percent increase. There are legal questions, however, about the veto.

That's because the tuition increase is embedded in large sums set aside for colleges and universities. The state constitution says the governor "may not veto any qualification or restriction" included in the budget without vetoing the money attached to it.

Scott said he was prepared to "fight" anyone who challenged his authority, but it appears top legislative leaders do not plan to go to court.

University students still could be forced to pay more this fall since a separate law states that if legislators do not increase tuition in the annual state budget then it automatically increases for state universities by the rate of inflation. That would amount to a 1.7 percent increase this fall.

That law, however, is silent on what happens if the governor vetoes the increase included in the budget. Scott's staff said Monday their lawyers consider the law vague.

Scott made it clear he would consider even a 1 percent tuition increase too high after several years of double-digit increases.

"This is not a political decision, this is a decision for Florida families," Scott said. "Tuition cannot continue to go up."

The Associated Press and staff writers Christopher Curry, Morgan Watkins and Erin Jester contributed to this report.

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