Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who had a tough time winning cooperation this past year from the Republican-led Legislature, struck back on Monday by vetoing nearly $400 million from the state's new budget.
Scott praised the overall budget — which now stands at roughly $74.1 billion — because it includes spending increases in areas such as education. The budget, for example, includes $480 million that is aimed at handing out pay raises for teachers.
"We made strategic investments in this budget, while holding the line on spending that does not give Florida taxpayers a positive return on investment," wrote Scott in a message accompanying his list of vetoes.
But the GOP governor also took aim at some of his fellow Republicans as he axed $368 million from the final budget.
His vetoes wiped out millions for college buildings, health care programs and even money for supplemental programs for veterans. Many of the vetoes squashed money for projects targeted for legislators' hometowns.
Scott, who met briefly with reporters, defended his rationale by saying he wanted to make sure that projects included in the budget helped create jobs, improved education or kept government efficient.
"I'm responsible for 19.2 million people," Scott said. "I'm not responsible for one region by itself."
Among the notable targets: Scott vetoed $14 million for a new technology and science building at Gulf State College that had been backed by Senate President Don Gaetz.
Scott also vetoed a 3 percent tuition increase for college and university students that had been championed by House Speaker Will Weatherford. The governor also said no to a $50 million item to help build a multi-use trail that would stretch from St. Petersburg to Titusville.
Scott joked to reporters that he likes to ride bikes, but he said he wanted to rely on existing transportation programs to gradually pay for the trail instead of one large budget item now.
Despite the vetoes, both Weatherford and Gaetz were muted in their official responses to Scott's actions.
"While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 95 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product," Weatherford said in a statement.
Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, however blasted the governor for "misunderstanding" how local projects help communities.
Smith added that legislators have a right to recommend funding for projects in their hometowns.
"As he sits high and looks down low, he seems to be under the mistaken impression that all good ideas for job creation originate in the governor's mansion," Smith said in a statement.
This year marked the first time in seven years that legislators had a budget surplus to work with. They were able to use the extra cash to hand out state worker pay raises, set aside money for Everglades restoration and reduce the waiting list for those with developmental disabilities seeking state services.
But lawmakers also ignored some of Scott's recommendations or altered them. Scott wanted to give a flat $2,500 increase to all teachers, but legislators instead tied the raise to performance evaluations.
Scott had also warned legislators about raising tuition rates and it was not a surprise that he decided to veto the 3 percent hike. There are legal questions, however, about the veto.
That's because the tuition hike is embedded in large sums set aside for colleges and universities. The state constitution says the governor "may not veto any qualification or restriction" included in the budget without vetoing the money attached to it.
Scott said he was prepared to "fight" anyone who challenged his authority, but it appears that top legislative leaders do not plan to go to court.
University students could still be forced to pay more this fall since a separate law states that if legislators do not increase tuition in the annual state budget than it automatically increases for state universities by the rate of inflation. That would amount to a 1.7 percent increase this fall.
That law, however, is silent on what happens if the governor vetoes the increase included in the budget. Scott's staff said Monday their lawyers consider the law vague.
Scott made it clear that he would consider even a 1 percent tuition increase too high after several years of double-digit increases.
"This is not a political decision, this is a decision for Florida families," Scott said. "Tuition cannot continue to go up."
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