By Steve Bousquet

Gov. Rick Scott signed a $77 billion state budget Monday, the largest in Florida history, packed with hundreds of millions of dollars in popular election-year projects championed by his fellow Republicans in the Legislature.

Scott's use of the line-item veto was his most surgical yet. He trimmed only $69 million in spending as he approved money for parks, museums, festivals, elderly meals programs, water and sewer projects and a gun range for police officers.

"I went through it and tried to look at every one and say, 'Was it a good use of taxpayer money? Do we get a good return on investment?'" Scott said at a campaign stop in Panama City, where he promoted a small screen printing business.

Scott, who in his first year axed $615 million of what he called "short-sighted, frivolous, wasteful spending," was lavish in his praise of the 2014-15 budget. He emphasized $500 million in fee and tax cuts and more money for schools in a year when the state is flush with $1.2 billion in new revenue.

Even projects Scott vetoed last year won his support this time, such as $15 million for a coast-to-coast bicycle trail in Central Florida. Asked what role election-year politics played in his newfound generosity, Scott said: "My focus is on what's good for taxpayers."

Henry Kelley of the Tea Party Network in Fort Walton Beach said he was shocked that the budget Scott signed is $9 billion larger than when he took office in 2011.

"Sixty-nine million dollars in vetoes? That's not even accounting dust," Kelley said. "Be it Democrats in Washington or Republicans in Tallahassee, I can't really tell the difference. ... Charlie Crist was more of a fiscal conservative than what Rick Scott has turned out to be."

The governor's modest list of budget vetoes included $2 million for the controversial SkyRise Miami observation tower that had been a top priority of the Miami-Dade delegation but most of the locally-sought projects survived.

"When you see a veto it kind of hurts a little but overall, I think we did very well," said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Miami Dade County legislative delegation.

Miami-Dade lawmakers originally sought $10 million to contribute to the $430 million observation tower to be located behind Bayside Marketplace and rising 1,000 feet into the air. But amid resistance from other legislators, they eventually whittled it down to $2 million with the condition that it would only be used on public infrastructure, such as sidewalks and driveways. The money was also contingent on the project securing $400 million in private-sector funding.

"The governor felt it wasn't deserving of the merits, that's fine,'' said Gonzalez, who is serving his final term but he said he expects legislators to return next year for state money, when construction on the project is expected to be underway. "Maybe we can sell it then,'' he said.

The governor also disappointed several other local groups by vetoing the following:

$275,000 for an "eICU" pilot program at Baptist Health South Florida. The program would have allowed a rural hospital to link with Baptist Health physicians using advanced technology. $500,000 for the substance abuse treatment facility, Here's Help Opa-locka.

$1 million for improvements to Museum Park in Miami. The money would have been used to pay for improvements to the museum park, contingent on a 50 percent match from the City of Miami.

$625,000 for Barry University for various programs at its schools of social work, school of professional and career education and its schools of medicine.

$205,000 to renovate the Historic Fulford Fountain in North Miami Beach.

$150,000 for Doral Business Council Expo.

$2.5 million for Regional Planning Councils.

$150,000 for single gender schools in Broward County.

$500,000 for Pompano State Farmers Market.

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said Scott did a good job curbing unnecessary spending even in a year with so much more money available.

"I think a lot of the projects had value but not to the state as a whole," Trujillo said. "They had value to just unique small communities or just small groups of people."

Trujillo said that goes for the $2 million Scott eliminated for the $430 million SkyRise Miami project, a 1,000-foot high observation tower.

"They're spending hundreds of millions of dollars in building this project," Trujillo said. "They should pay for the sidewalks and the others things that are necessary for completing this project."

The bottom-line number for K-12 schools of $20.7 billion is the largest in history, but per-pupil spending is still $177 less than during the high-water mark of 2007-2008, the first year of former Gov. Crist, Scott's likely opponent this fall.

In addition, about two-thirds of the increase in K-12 spending is paid for by local property taxes, due to increases in home values -- one of several indicators of a rejuvenated Florida economy.

Crist had called on Scott to veto hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects for lawmakers' districts and plow all of it into the public schools.

Democrats cited the fact that in his first year in office, Scott pushed for a $1.3 billion cut in public school spending, that he signed a second-year budget with $300 million in cuts to state universities and that the Bright Futures scholarship program serves fewer students today than it did seven years ago.

"Rick Scott is trying to run from his record of slashing education funding," Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant said. "No amount of poll-tested talking points can change the fact that per-pupil spending still remains below 2007 levels."

The budget includes $18 million for the state to hire and train 270 additional front-line workers to reduce caseloads of employees who investigate cases of child abuse and neglect at the Department of Children and Families.

The budget, which takes effect July 1, contains no automatic statewide increase in tuition for universities and community colleges, which was a top Scott priority. Most state workers will not get an across-the-board pay raise, but they will be eligible for performance bonuses.

The budget sets aside $3 billion in rainy-day unspent reserves for emergencies such as hurricanes.

"It's an election year," said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater. "Maybe we're trying to make good on stuff we took away years ago."

Herald/Times staff writers Tia Mitchell and Mary Ellen Klas and Times researcher Natalie Watsoncontributed to this report.

(c)2014 The Miami Herald