Budget vetoes seen as less likely in Governor Scott’s second year

Apr 8, 2012

The following article was published in The Palm Beach Post on April 8, 2012:

Budget vetoes seen as less likely in Governor Scott’s second year

By John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott says he doesn’t expect to come “anywhere close” to last year’s record $615 million in budget vetoes as he wraps up his review of the legislature’s new $70 billion spending plan.

Scott attributed his anticipated lighter touch with the veto pen to legislators getting the message last year. The first-year governor was intent on reducing state spending and curbing the age-old practice of powerful legislators steering money back home.

It hasn’t completely worked. But legislators and lobbyists have done a better job convincing him of the merits of some items, he said.

“One of the groups that did well coming back with more information this year was public television stations,” Scott said. “I said, ‘Go back and show us that there was a return on the money we are spending.’ And they did.”

Without that assurance, Scott vetoed $4.8 million last year for Florida public broadcasting stations. It marked the first time in 30 years there was no state funding for Florida PBS, prompting supporters to deride Scott as an enemy of Big Bird and Sesame Street.

But Florida public broadcasters lobbied Scott and legislators hard this year, meeting with the governor’s staff to emphasize what one PBS lobbyist, Lindy Kennedy, called the “business sense” of the $4 million included in this year’s budget.

“I think the PBS system has helped him understand that we play a strong educational role,” said Bernie Henneberg, chief executive officer of Palm Beach County’s WXEL-TV. “I think he’s started to see there’s value here.”

WXEL is in line to receive $307,447 from the state, with the same amount also going to Florida’s 13 other public TV stations .

Other Palm Beach County organizations say they hope Scott will follow suit on spending coming their way. Scott is expected to act on the budget as early as this week.

Tony Brown, executive director of the Riviera Beach Community Redevelopment Agency, said the budget’s $500,000 for road-widening and other work on the city’s 13th Street is key to connecting a nearby industrial park with the Port of Palm Beach.

The city has been running budget deficits the past couple of years, Brown said. He hopes Scott will allow the state money to form “something that’s a good public partnership.”

“There’s 5,000 jobs involved in the industrial park and the port,” Brown said. “We think the governor will see the benefit.”

Scott, though, told The Palm Beach Post that he’s grown weary of the jobs-creating pitch that seems behind almost every spending provision.

“I think they all saw the ‘let’s get to work’ ads I ran in my campaign,” Scott said, adding that he wants more precision from legislators.

“I’m asking them, ‘What measurements do you have? What benefit does this bring to taxpayers? What kind of rate of return can taxpayers expect if we do this?’ ” Scott added.

Pricey school programs

Legislators facing a fourth consecutive year of budget shortfalls may have restrained themselves from tucking dozens of hometown projects into the spending plan. But budget turkeys seem to endure.

The home county of incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, drew $389,825 in state taxpayer money for a science, technology, engineering and math program at a middle school.

House budget Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, steered $520,203 to an International Baccalaureate program at her hometown high school – money that Highlands County taxpayers might otherwise have to spend.

Once again, a rowing center in Sarasota County would receive millions if Scott left it untouched. The project sat at $1 million for much of the budget process this year, then moved to $5 million in the final version.

As the budget was debated, various sponsors won $500,000 for the Bay of Pigs Museum and $150,000 for a historic log cabin in Biscayne Park.

Legislators also tucked into the plan $445,000 for the Mound House in Lee County. The website for the Fort Myers Beach attraction bills it as “Estero Island’s oldest standing structure” and notes that it “sits on an ancient Calusa Indian Mound.”

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, led budget provisions and a conforming bill (SB 1994) that create a 12th state university – separating the University of South Florida from its polytechnic campus in Lakeland.

Alexander, who is term-limited, would cap his legislative career with one of the most ambitious hometown projects of recent years – a new Florida university. Scott said last week he was still weighing the USF split.

FAU trying to cope

The governor said he’s also undecided about another measure (HB 7129) that would let the University of Florida and Florida State University charge whatever tuition they want, lifting them from limits set by the legislature and the State University System Board of Governors.

The budget, though, cuts state universities by $300 million, including $24.8 million from Florida Atlantic University.

University supporters bristle that the reduction comes even as a new school is being created in the backyard of an influential legislator.

FAU President Mary Jane Saunders has told students and university employees the school is working on “measures to cope with the funding cutback.” But there doesn’t seem to be a system-wide effort to urge Scott to reverse the $300 million loss.

Scott also seems less willing to wage war with legislators than he did as a first-year executive.

In delivering the stunning volume of budget vetoes, he blistered legislators last year for “short-sighted, frivolous, wasteful spending programs” that were the product of “the Tallahassee insiders.”

Much of Scott’s first-year agenda had been reduced – or ignored – by legislators.

But this spring Scott lowered his sights and was able to declare victory with a business tax-cut package, a $1 billion increase in school spending, and an overhaul of the state’s personal injury protection (PIP) auto insurance.

“I’ll tell you one thing that’s different this year: I know more people, which is a positive,” Scott said. “But I can get more phone calls, too.”

Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, the incoming House speaker, said legislative leaders this year did try to pre-empt Scott opposition.

“We did a better job of reaching out proactively, saying, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do,’ ” Weatherford said. “I also don’t think you’ll see the same amount of pork in this budget, either. But there will be vetoes; there always are.”

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