A jaw-dropping event occurred behind closed doors in Tallahassee last week.
Gov. Rick Scott actually did something gubernatorial.
He sat down at his desk and whacked $461.4 million out of the state budget, line by line. Some of the projects he vetoed were favorites of powerful legislators from his own Republican Party, who he felt had shorted his priorities of tax cuts and school funding.
Some are saying Scott’s veto orgy was political payback, a gratuitous flexing of executive muscle. Whatever his motives, he saved Florida taxpayers some money.
The governor’s axe fell on worthy projects as well as pork. Forestry firefighters deserved a $2,000 pay hike, but Scott scratched the funds for that. Charities, local museums and libraries were also hit hard. Other items on the hit list included programs for the elderly, the homeless and children at risk.
But the $78.7 billion budget was also bulging with dubious allotments. There was $150,000 for “avocado tree removal,” $250,000 to buy Ma Barker's hideout in Marion County and turn it into a museum, $100,000 to refurbish a rodeo arena in Davie and $100,000 for a “culinary project” in Miami-Dade.
How about $190,000 for the Fort Myers Sesquicentennial Foundation? Or $500,000 to relocate the Miami Boat Show?
Scott vetoed them all.
Big companies had their hands out, as well. Scripps Research Institute wanted a million bucks. The Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute was angling for $2.5 million. Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies asked for the same amount.
No, no and no, said the governor.
My personal favorite, for bald audacity, was the request for state funds by the IMG Academy in Bradenton. It’s a private sports training center for pro athletes that also features an expensive boarding school for young tennis, golf and baseball players.
At a time when some public school teachers don’t have enough textbooks for all their students, the idea of subsidizing a for-profit campus like IMG is obscene. Yet it’s happened in the past — the academy got $5 million from the Legislature last year — and it was about to happen again.
The budget talks held during the added legislative session awarded IMG a modest though undeserved $50,000. Then, just before the budget was printed, the $50,000 mysteriously ballooned to $2,050,000.
No explanation for the last-minute $2 million bump was given, but it’s no secret that IMG has a major fan in House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. Of the IMG grant, Crisafulli said: “The appeal to me is the opportunity for more choice in education.”
Really? IMG might be a fabulous “choice” if you can afford $70,000-a-year in tuition and your kid can whack a tennis ball 110 mph. However, most Florida families aren’t in a position to send their children to a private sports academy.
Either Crisafulli is a fool, or he thinks taxpayers are fools.
This is the same guy who, as a proud pimp for Big Sugar, nixed the purchase of agricultural lands to use for cleaning the toxic runoff from Lake Okeechobee.
The money would have been available from existing revenues earmarked by Amendment 1.
More than 4 million voters approved that amendment last November, and Crisafulli basically gave the middle finger to each and every one of them. So it was glorious to see his ridiculous IMG handout vetoed by Scott.
Also knifed were several projects in Brevard County, where Crisafulli lives, including a $2.2 million “parking structure” for the Cocoa Village Playhouse.
Senate President Andy Gardiner of Orlando felt the painful sting of the governor’s blade, too. Pared from the budget was $15 million that Gardiner had sought for a downtown Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida.
What Scott did to the budget isn’t unprecedented or heroic. Both Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist wielded their veto pens with gusto.
Scott’s pork-cutting is causing more whining because he did it so quickly, in private and evidently without consultation. The total he slashed was a sevenfold increase from last year, fueling suspicion that it’s retribution for what he perceived as snubs by key lawmakers.
The governor’s relationship with this malfunctioning Legislature has been prickly and remote, and some veteran lawmakers view the veto blitz as a call to war. However, it’s hard to study the 10-page list of killed grants, from the Panhandle to the Keys, and say that Scott was picking on anyone in particular.
What he didn’t do is leave expensive hometown projects in the budget for top-ranking GOP lawmakers. That’s not chummy party politics, but at least the slashing was evenhanded.
And, for this awkward and furtive governor, a rare display of might.