Gov. Rick Scott’s sudden and sweeping vetoes of lawmakers’ projects has stirred up more bad blood with the Senate that’s likely to linger.
It won’t take long for the governor to find out the price he’ll pay the next time he needs support for his own priorities. The next session begins in just six months.
Acting with a swiftness not seen before in Florida, Scott blind-sided legislators from the cozy privacy of his Capitol office last Tuesday and wiped out $461 million for virtually every type of program, from free medical clinics to college construction to programs to help ex-offenders rejoin society.
The second-term Republican governor still enjoys strong support in the House. But senators, already frustrated by Scott’s opposition to their health care expansion plan, are angry that he did not give them a chance to defend their projects, and say they were punished for not fully embracing his tax cuts and school spending proposals.
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“The governor kept his word,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, whose Panhandle district voted overwhelmingly for Scott last fall. “He said he would punish the constituents of legislators who disagreed with him, and he kept that promise.”
During the regular session, senators were summoned one by one to Scott’s office and said they were threatened with reprisals if they blocked his agenda.
Scott’s assault on spending is viewed as a tactic to appeal to fiscally conservative voters as he seeks a possible campaign for U.S. Senate in 2018. He has not stated his future intentions but senators say it’s obvious.
“It’s unfortunate that the messaging strategy needed to achieve the governor’s political agenda comes at the expense of the most vulnerable people in our state,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, after Scott vetoed his projects to help disabled children and the University of Central Florida.
Senators now say they are drawing up lists of jobs that were sacrificed to Scott’s veto pen in an effort to show that he undermined his own signature priority.
“He talks about jobs and then he turns around and vetoes them,” said Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, after Scott erased $1 million for a Pensacola industrial park, the FOIL Corridor.
Scott denied having ulterior motives. He said he vetoed projects that bypassed state agency review or would not benefit the state as a whole.
“I go through the budget and try to find out what’s best for Florida citizens. This is their money. It’s not government money,” Scott said. “I’m going to do my best to make sure that money is spent wisely.”
But fellow Republicans accuse Scott of inconsistency.
As a candidate for re-election last year, he approved state money for a Holocaust memorial on Miami Beach, but this year he vetoed it. His veto message said the project was not subject to a competitive review “based on measurable outcomes.”
Last year he approved state money to Quest Kids for children with developmental disabilities, but this year he vetoed it.
Last year he approved state money to IMG Academy, an elite private school for athletes in Bradenton. This year, he vetoed it.
This year, Scott approved pay raises for state troopers in six counties, including Pinellas and Hillsborough and for driver license examiners. But he vetoed a $2,000 raise for forestry firefighters, which incensed Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a Republican.
What’s more, Scott repeatedly vetoed legislative decisions to carry money over from this year to next to complete projects that he supported a year ago, but are behind schedule. They include completion of a Patriots’ Trail in Fort Walton Beach honoring military veterans, named in honor of the late George “Bud” Day, one of America’s most decorated heroes who was John McCain’s P.O.W. cellmate in Vietnam.
Scott said that project “circumvents the established grant review process,” but a powerful Republican senator challenged his logic and noted that Scott approved it a year ago.
“It just seems to be an end run around the appropriations process to give the governor a second bite of the apple,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
Lee and other legislators went on a late-night spending binge in the final days of a three-week special session, spreading $300 million in “supplemental” projects across the state and drawing criticism for a lack of transparency.
Scott vetoed many of them but approved others.
Going forward, Scott’s problems are compounded by the calendar. Legislative committee meetings will start anew in September in preparation for a session that begins on Jan. 5, 2016. The time for tempers to cool is much shorter than usual.
Senators demonstrated their willingness to push Scott around this spring, and things could get worse. The Senate has the sole power to confirm or reject agency heads who work for Scott and refused to confirm a dozen of them, and they will lose their jobs if they are not confirmed next session.
To override any of Scott’s vetoes would require a two-thirds vote by both chambers, but that’s highly unlikely. For all the ill will in the Senate, Scott remains very popular among House Republicans.
The House majority leader, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, had projects vetoed, too, such as $15.8 million for the USF Heart Institute, but defended Scott’s use of line-item veto power.
“There is a lot of grumbling about the budget vetoes, but I take a more practical view,” she said. “It would be unfortunate for members to take it personally.”
Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Hialeah, said Scott’s vetoes were in line with the House’s conservative views. He said senators have a “loose interpretation” of fiscal conservatism and that the House is closer to Scott’s line of thinking ideologically.
“We fought shoulder to shoulder on that [health care] expansion façade,” said Oliva, who’s in line to be House speaker in 2018. “I think it is impressive what he is doing.”
Oliva lost millions of dollars in water projects for his Miami-Dade district, and the county had the largest dollar amount in vetoes, according to an analysis by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.
Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, was upset that Scott axed his projects, one of which would have benefited USF’s Sarasota-Manatee campus, but he said blasting the governor is wrong.
“There’s no benefit to taking shots,” Boyd said.