Gov. Rick Scott must soon sign the new state budget, and he’s getting intense feedback on all sides: from lawmakers protecting hometown projects, hospitals worried about losing money and a business-backed group criticizing pork-barrel spending.
Scott, who campaigned on a pledge to shrink the size of government, must decide by next Friday how much to prune from the largest budget in state history, $74.5 billion. Already, he has taken the unusual step of asking four possible recipients of tax money to give it back if they fail to meet promises to generate tax revenue for the state.
With Scott in control of the state’s purse strings, safety net hospitals that treat many of the poor and uninsured have intensified their lobbying, fearful that Scott will veto $65 million in transitional funding.
When Scott visited Miami earlier in the week, Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, lobbied him on the value of hot meals for elderly residents of his inner-city district. “We hope you don’t veto a lot of our things,” he told the governor.
Florida TaxWatch, which for three decades has produced an annual and notorious “turkey list,” wants Scott to veto 107 budget line items worth $107 million. The group said the projects were added to the budget at brief, last-minute meetings with little public review, were not recommended by state agencies or are being steered to specific vendors without competition.
“Our general feeling is that member projects should get more scrutiny instead of less,” said Kurt Wenner of TaxWatch. “But unfortunately they tend to be added late in the process ... That is the reason we have a turkey report.”
Eighteen Miami-Dade projects made the TaxWatch list, far more than in any other county.
They include $1.5 million for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and $1 million each for a jobs program for children with disabilities championed by quarterback Dan Marino, a social services center in southwest Dade and a Bay of Pigs Museum.
TaxWatch flagged $4 million for a film sequel to Dolphin Tale, $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium itself and $250,000 for Tampa’s Museum of Science and Industry.
The budget on Scott’s desk also contains more than $23 million in instructional grants for students, including $1 million for Communities in Schools, which made TaxWatch’s list even though TaxWatch CEO Dominic Calabro is on its board.
Overall, TaxWatch said, the Legislature crafted a responsible budget and the turkeys amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of the budget. But it brought angry denunciations from Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who during the session touted an intensive Senate review of spending with a goal of greater fiscal responsibility.
Gaetz said TaxWatch’s view that projects should be recommended by state agencies is an “unconstitutional perversion,” which he called “an arrogance of the elite who spend too much time in Tallahassee ... It is little wonder that TaxWatch is irrelevant 364 days a year.”
As Gaetz noted, projects called “turkeys” by TaxWatch would fund mobile medical and dental units in poor areas, programs for disabled veterans, senior centers and Holocaust education.
But TaxWatch, which is backed by backed by some of the state’s largest businesses, emphasized that its concern is with the way the projects were funded, not their worthiness.
Safety net hospitals, meanwhile, are scrambling to save $65 million in funding Scott could veto. The money was added to the budget to reduce losses for hospitals created under a new Medicaid funding formula.
If Scott vetoes the spending, Miami’s Jackson Memorial Hospital would lose $23.3 million, Shands Teaching Hospital in Gainesville would lose $11 million and Tampa General Hospital would lose $2 million.
Scott has until May 24 to sign the budget, but he will be in Chile on an official trade mission from May 20-23, so he may act before he leaves the country.
The governor’s handling of the state budget is always a closely watched decision, and this year it gives the re-election-minded Scott a chance to make a clear political statement: Is he willing to endorse the spending choices of his fellow Republicans, or is he a fiscal conservative who’s willing to veto hundreds of millions of dollars in local projects?
Scott alienated some conservative supporters in February when he endorsed a three-year expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Scott defended a decision to force some groups to return state money if promised tax revenues fall short.
“There’s a lot of things in the budget,” Scott said. “I’ve asked them to make sure that if they don’t get the returns, they give the money back to the state.”
Scott sent letters to a horse park in Ocala, IMG Academy in Bradenton, a rowing center in Sarasota and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, a technology incubator in St. Petersburg, due to receive $400,000.
The letter said that if the group does not provide $1 million in state tax revenue by 2018, it must write a $400,000 check to the state. It’s unclear if the letters are legally binding.
All four projects Scott cited in his letters were approved by a panel of budget-writers chaired in the House by Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, who said he was persuaded that the IMG Academy attracts enough visitors that it deserves $2.3 million.
“Less than one half of 1 percent? That’s not extravagant,” Hooper said. “The Legislature is simply trying to make this state a better place to live.”
Herald/Times staff writers Tia Mitchell and Amy Sherman contributed to this report.