By Kathleen Haughney and Scott Powers, Staff Writers 7:47 PM EDT, May 26, 2011 THE VILLAGES
Gov. Rick Scott signed a $69.1 billion state budget Thursday after vetoing a record $615.3 million of what he termed “shortsighted, frivolous, wasteful, short-term special-interest projects,” angering lawmakers and prompting muttered threats of veto overrides.
Scott, standing in front of an 8-foot blue backdrop that proclaimed “Promises Made, Promises Kept,” urged that an unspecified chunk of the veto money be diverted into public-school spending, which absorbed a $1.3 billion cut in the budget lawmakers passed earlier this month. But legislators said less than $100 million of the veto money could be used for schools — a relative drop in the bucket.
“The special interests in Tallahassee probably are not happy that well over a half billion dollars in spending has been lined out of this budget,” Scott said. “But I’m sure most of you here today agree with me that spending on a few more quality teachers here in Sumter County should take priority over spending $500,000 on a new barn for racehorses.”
In front of a cheering crowd of about 500 in this heavily Republican retirement community — a handful of Democratic protesters were moved away by sheriff’s deputies — Scott slashed pet projects approved by legislators who had largely ignored his call for $1.7 billion in tax cuts and $600 million in new economic-development money last session.
Around him, supporters unfurled banners reading: “Less waste, more for education.”
Among Scott’s vetoes were more than $21 million for construction, including four new buildings, at the University of Central Florida; $146.5 million in other university and college construction projects; $305 million for purchase of environmentally endangered lands; dozens of community projects, including many backed by legislative leaders; and even a $400,000 study of the Florida Supreme Court inserted into the budget by House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
He also axed nearly $4.8 million in funding for public broadcasting; a $400,000 study on the future of gaming in Florida; and a long-standing agreement between the state Department of Transportation and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority that gives the county $8 million annually to operate some tollbooths and roads owned by the state.
Scott’s veto total topped the previous record of $459 million set by former Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007, during Crist’s first year in office. And it clearly angered lawmakers, who had reluctantly approved billion-dollar cuts to public schools and Medicaid spending in order to offset a revenue shortfall of nearly $4 billion.
Cannon quickly challenged Scott’s appeal to divert money to public schools, saying most of the vetoed items were paid for with one-time “trust fund” dollars. General-revenue cuts — money that can be used for ongoing expenses — totaled less than $99 million, he said.
“What is more surprising is the Governor’s sudden emphasis on K-12 education,” Cannon said in a statement that said Scott had sought even deeper K-12 cuts than the Legislature approved. “It would have been helpful if the Governor had shared this new found emphasis with us before the budget was finalized.”
Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, was derisive: “Only tea partyers under the control of billionaire right-wingers could cheer such propaganda,” she said.
And even Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, a mild-mannered lawmaker who has been supportive of Scott, hinted at the possibility of veto overrides. Republicans hold more than the two-thirds supermajority needed to override a veto in both houses.
But the chairs of the House and Senate education budget committee said that if money were available, they were more than happy to put it toward education.
“Both chambers worked very hard to craft a budget that is considered responsible and most of all to balance the budget,” said House PreK-12 Education Chair Marti Coley, R-Marianna. “But certainly if any money is available to put back into education, I would not be opposed.”
Her Senate counterpart, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, agreed and said he would like lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for a special session and to put more money into public schools and also health care.
“My own suggestion a week ago was to do this, and I agree with what he’s done about putting money back into education,” Simmons said. “I think it would be a great opportunity for us, with surgical precision, to take a significant portion of those monies that he has now freed up and put them into education and health care.”
A spokesman for Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said he was seeking input from members regarding a special session. But Katie Betta, a spokeswoman for Cannon, said the speaker had no plans to call lawmakers back.
Scott, talking to reporters after the announcement, wouldn’t specify how much money from the vetoes should go toward education and wouldn’t say whether he would call a special session.
In fact, though, much of the money Scott cut may never come into state coffers. The $167.8 million in higher-education construction he vetoed relied on the sale of bonds. And a proposed $305 million to buy land under the Florida Forever program would have come from the sale of surplus state property.
Scott, who has said he is worried about the state’s bond indebtedness, doesn’t want the bonds sold. And environmental activists said they weren’t counting on the sale of surplus lands generating anywhere close to $305 million next year.
Still, the cuts will hurt. At UCF, which also lost $2 million for an “economic gardening program” and a $6 million research facility that the University of Florida was going to build at the Lake Nona Medical City, officials expressed dismay. Said President John Hitt: “For a state that really needs new jobs, this is not good news.”
But the cuts drew praise from Scott’s audience of retirees and tea-party members. Two dozen members of The Villages Democratic Club were ordered by Sumter County sheriff’s deputies to move 50 yards away from Scott’s stage.
Lt. Tim Nordle said that the public square at The Lake Sumter Landing had been “leased” — he said he didn’t know by whom — and that the Sheriff’s Office had been told to move the protesters, some of whom carried signs reading: “Support teachers.”