Just four days after the Florida Legislature passed the $78.7 billion state budget, Gov. Rick Scott, with no advanced notice, fanfare or public appearance quietly signed the budget behind closed doors. He didn’t confer with his partners in the process — fellow Cabinet members, legislative leaders and senators and representatives. Even his lieutenant governor was left in the dark.
Nor did he communicate with those who found themselves on the receiving end of his veto pen. Mayors, commissioners, university presidents and healthcare administrators were among those learning their fate online, through the news media or by word of mouth.
Scott vetoed $461 million of legislative spending, a personal record, or less than one percent of the budget.
There was mixed reaction to Scott’s vetoes and to the odd manner in which he performed what is arguably the governor’s most significant responsibility. Individual legislators were surprised to learn that he had completed the job without reaching out to them, as most governors traditionally do.
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Scott deserves some criticism for the lack of public discourse, stakeholder involvement and transparency. Scott has — during past sessions — conferred with legislators on their budget priorities. But this session and special session were particularly acrimonious, with the governor siding with one chamber over the other.
But the Legislature is not without blame. As the legislative budget conference was coming to an end, there was a last-minute, late-night spending spree where House and Senate leaders agreed to spend some $300 million on legislators’ projects.
Frustrated voters decried the process and opposed many of the individual projects that were funded at the last minute. They hoped some of these spending items would be vetoed — and some of them were.
Did Gov. Scott do a good job with his line-item vetoes? The answers vary depending on whether or not your ox got gored.
While I don’t agree with all of his vetoes, I do give the governor kudos for using his veto pen boldly. And I credit him for cutting some of the most controversial projects, such as the $2 million for the IMG Academy, the privately owned sports training facility, and the $27 million for water farming contracts that primarily benefit wealthy agribusiness and large private landowners.
Some are convinced Scott used the budget to exact retribution or to punish senators for pursuing Medicaid expansion after he reversed course on the issue and decided he was, once again, adamantly opposed to accepting those federal dollars.
Some of his actions did seem punitive and inconsistent. Take for example the $15 million for the University of Central Florida downtown campus and the $5 million for the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts Center — both priorities of Senate President Andy Gardiner and both vetoed.
Meanwhile, the University of South Florida downtown medical school, supported by a key House ally, was spared the veto pen. Perhaps one was a better project or received the proper approvals but it leaves room for suspicion — particularly since Scott had previously threatened to veto senators’ projects over their Medicaid support.
Gardiner’s funding priorities, including $8 million for a program to help children with disabilities attend college, were victims of Scott’s veto pen while the three budget priorities attributed to Speaker Steve Crisafulli emerged unscathed.
And Scott vetoed $10 million in funding for free and charitable healthcare clinics after fighting Senate efforts to help the state’s working poor purchase private health insurance.
While it’s difficult to prove one’s intentions, it’s safe to say the budget process is highly political, the veto pen is mighty powerful and some degree of political strategy is expected.
Scott’s strategy has varied from year to year. He vetoed a mere $69 million last year. Of course, it was an election year and grateful legislators are generally happy to thank the governor publicly for caring about their communities.
This year he had no trouble vetoing legislators’ wastewater and sewer projects as well as their museums, libraries, education and road projects.
Scott did little to promote Cabinet unity either.
He vetoed several priorities of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam. Putnam was “profoundly disappointed” that Scott vetoed $1.6 million for $2,000 salary increases for the state’s 606 Forest Service firefighters who are currently fighting 90 active wildfires.
Scott also vetoed $2.5 million for a University of Florida bee-research center to find cures for diseases and parasites that threaten our bee colonies, endangering our pollination capabilities in a state heavily dependent on agriculture. And free orange and grapefruit juice at our welcome centers — gone.
And while some outside groups like Americans for Prosperity and Associated Industries joined Scott-appointed agency heads in singing his praises — state employees, the developmentally disabled and the uninsured working poor continue to be ignored.
While I applaud Scott’s fiscal prudence, it does appear to be selectively and politically applied.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.