Gov. Rick Scott extended an unexpected goodwill gesture to an uncooperative Legislature on Tuesday by saying he will veto a modest $256 million in line-item spending when the new state budget reaches his desk.
The unorthodox strategy was seen as a preemptive strike by Scott against a Legislature prepared to fight against a much longer list of vetoes. That would have destroyed the shaky working relationship between Scott and his fellow Republicans who write the annual budget.
Even after Scott’s priorities were rejected or marginalized by his fellow Republicans, the governor showed little evidence of retribution, and lawmakers praised him for a veto list that’s about half the size of last year’s.
“He’s sending an olive branch,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, who noted that Miami-Dade’s lengthy list of projects remained mostly intact, unlike last year.
But Diaz added that it was no coincidence that Scott’s vetoes totaled $256 million, very close to a $250 million fund that lawmakers rejected for Scott to lure jobs to Florida.
“The governor is extracting his pound of flesh,” Diaz said.
Democrats had a less charitable view of Scott’s strategy.
“He’s trying to hide the fact that the Legislature ate his lunch,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader. “He’s been beaten pretty badly.”
On a day when the political universe was closely watching presidential primary voting in Florida and four other states, Scott released his list of doomed projects, the largest of which is a $55 million legislative raid on an economic development trust fund that lawmakers wanted to divert to other projects.
Scott’s hit list includes after-school mentoring and youth crime prevention programs, family counseling and inmate re-entry efforts, a new jail in DeSoto County, a new roof for North Lauderdale City Hall and a cattlemen’s arena in Hardee County.
The vetoes struck down dozens of water improvement projects across the state, $8 million for Florida International University’s expansion plans, $1 million for a road project in North Miami Beach and $1 million for Vizcaya among many other things.
“We are disappointed in the veto,” said Mark Rosenberg, FIU president. “We thank the state Legislature, in particular the Miami-Dade delegation, for their efforts and pledge to continue working on our expansion plans to enhance opportunities for our students and our community.”
The university for years has been working on expanding its campus to add dorms, research facilities and other programs for its growing student body. The expansion would involve using part of the Youth Fair’s home in Tamiami Park to accommodate facilities. The university has been working with the county on a solution.
A veto of $650,000 for Breakthrough Miami — an academic enrichment program for under-resourced middle-school students to help them graduate from high school on time and attend college — means an expansion plan outside of Miami-Dade County may be stalled.
“There has been a great deal of interest from other communities to expand,” said Elissa Vanaver, Breakthrough’s CEO. “A lot of people worked really hard to bring this program to kids across the state.”
The veto, she said, will not affect current programming in Miami-Dade County.
The city of Hollywood lost several projects to the governor’s veto list, but Raelin Storey, a city spokeswoman, said: “We did have some important successes in addition to those that were eliminated.”
Hollywood’s funding was cut for several projects including $200,000 for a water main replacement and $200,000 for day care scholarships for two neighborhoods. But Storey said the city’s legislation team “worked really hard” to get important projects through, including street lighting for two neighborhoods and money for programming at a senior center.
North Miami Beach City Manager Ana Garcia agreed with the sentiment.
“I am disappointed that some of our requested items in the budget were vetoed, however, our focus is on the funding that was appropriated to North Miami Beach,” she said. “This means projects like the restoration of the Historic Fulford Fountain can move forward as North Miami Beach prepares to celebrate our city's 90th anniversary this year.”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Scott’s budget experts have been seeking details about local projects for weeks, and that led Gaetz to think incorrectly that Scott was sharpening his veto knife.
“The fear was palpable that vetoes would be severe, deep and swift,” Gaetz said. “Frankly, I am surprised.”
Scott cannot make the vetoes stick until the Legislature sends him the budget and he transmits his veto message to the Secretary of State. Until then, lawmakers say, Scott will face intense pressure to change his mind.
“I will be signing this budget into law as soon as the Florida Legislature delivers it to me and withholding approval for approximately $256.1 million in projects that do not provide a significant return on taxpayer investment,” Scott said in a statement.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, criticized Scott’s actions. He said he never had a chance to defend his projects: the $8 million for FIU to expand its campus and $300,000 for West Miami water improvements.
“There was no opportunity to defend projects that I actually submitted,” Fresen said. “I’m sure the governor will have an explanation as to what the rhyme or reason was. I certainly can’t see them.”
Scott scored valuable political points with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, a leading candidate for governor in 2018.
A year ago, Putnam said he was “profoundly disappointed” that Scott vetoed a $2,000 pay raise for state forestry firefighters, whose average pay is $27,000 a year.
But when Scott reversed course without explanation and approved the raises Tuesday, Putnam said: “I thank Gov. Scott for his thoughtful consideration and support of many of our key priorities.”
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, had predicted $500 million in line-item vetoes from Scott.
“It strikes me as a very reasonable level of vetoes,” Lee said. “It implies to me that he believes it’s a pretty good budget.”
Lee said he never believed that a special session to override Scott’s vetoes was likely, and he said it’s even less likely now. To prompt an override, he said, Scott would have had to eliminate a pillar of the budget, such as the entire education budget or the entire budget for prisons.
“A veto override for what are essentially pork projects? You’d have a hard time getting a quorum,” Lee said.
Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark and Mary Ellen Klas and Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.