By Steve Bousquet
Moving with surprising speed and secrecy, Gov. Rick Scott vetoed $461 million from the state budget Tuesday, enraging fellow Republicans for wiping out their priorities with the stroke of a pen.
Following a tense session in which he fought senators in his own party, Scott bludgeoned their projects just four days after the end of a three-week special legislative session. He denied that he was getting even with them. Yet, he was criticized for inconsistency for vetoing a $2,000 pay raise for state firefighters while allowing $5,000 raises for highway patrol troopers in six counties.
Locked inside his Capitol office, surrounded only by staff members, Scott signed the $78.7 billion budget -- a sign that he anticipated the political impact of his decisions.
"I go through the budget and I try to find out what's best for citizens. This is their money. It's not government money," Scott said. "They're paying taxes, and I'm going to do my best to make sure that money is spent wisely."
Many of the vetoed projects -- like $2.05 million for the sports training IMG Academy in Bradenton -- had been added to the budget with scant public discussion. Still, Republican senators attacked Scott, accusing him of playing politics.
"The governor has declared war on the Legislature," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, whose priorities lay in ruins.
After pledging his devotion to Scott for months, Latvala heaped blame on Scott's chief of staff, Melissa Sellers, who used to work for Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
"The governor is not being well served by these kids from Louisiana,'' Latvala said. "They've got him totally isolated. You can't have a meeting without Melissa sitting there. She totally controls the agenda, but what are her credentials to do that? She won a campaign."
Latvala had budgeted $1 million to restore a Pahokee marina, $1 million to expand a Palm Harbor library, and $300,000 for a water taxi on Clearwater Beach, and all were vetoed.
Many other lawmakers stocked the budget with projects, but Scott spiked them, too, for water and sewer improvements, libraries, museums, softball fields, industrial parks, after-school programs and grants to Big Brothers Big Sisters, Goodwill Industries, Junior Achievement, Special Olympics and United Cerebral Palsy.
Miami-Dade legislators are especially adept at getting state money, but Scott vetoed many of their projects as well. He erased $1 million for the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, $300,000 for a Holocaust Memorial on Miami Beach and $250,000 to combat Medicaid fraud in Miami-Dade.
Scott came under fire from Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam for killing a $2,000 pay raise for state firefighters who earn an average salary of $27,475 a year. But Scott approved pay raises for driver license examiners and state troopers in six counties.
"I'm profoundly disappointed," Putnam said. "Our forest firefighters put their lives on the line. They're demonstrably underpaid."
Scott's decisions prompted confusion as well as criticism. He vetoed $1 million for the National Flight Academy, a Panhandle aviation camp, but approved a second $500,000 grant to the same group without noting the duplication.
He used his veto message to attack hospital profits, erasing $350,000 to All Children's Hospital Johns Hopkins Medicine in St. Petersburg for neonatal abstinence syndrome awareness, saying the money was "less than 1 percent of the hospital's overall profitability."
Scott denied that his vetoes were acts of vengeance against Republican senators who challenged him in the regular session, but senators say Scott will pay a political price in the next session, six months away.
"Today the governor hurls thunderbolts from his fists," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. "Tomorrow, he's just another guy looking for a bill to pass."
Gaetz dismissed speculation that the Legislature would try to override Scott's vetoes by a two-thirds vote.
Scott did not appear concerned about optics. His veto list included $241,000 to restore the historic Bethel A.M.E. Church in St. Petersburg less than a week after the shootings at an A.M.E. church in Charleston, S.C.
He said the rejected projects either were not statewide priorities or duplicated existing programs.
Among the more notable items slashed was $2.05 million for IMG Academy in Bradenton, a private, for-profit school for aspiring pro athletes. A priority of House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, it was tucked into the budget with no public debate hours before the final budget deal was reached.
Two major University of South Florida projects survived. They are $17 million to relocate USF's Morsani College of Medicine to downtown Tampa and $12.3 million for USF's College of Business in St. Petersburg.
Several priorities of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, died, including $15 million for a new downtown Orlando campus of the University of Central Florida and $8 million for college scholarships and job training for people with disabilities.
Scott said both projects were back-door additions to the state budget.
Gardiner vilified Scott, saying he vetoed nearly $10 million for health clinics that treat the poor after blocking a Senate plan to expand insurance to working-class Floridians.
"It is 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," Gardiner said.
Scott also vetoed funding increases for three private colleges because they increased tuition last year. They are Florida Institute of Technology, Jacksonville University and Nova Southeastern University in Davie.
Scott vetoed money for substance abuse treatment and re-entry programs for inmates leaving Florida's prisons, including in St. Petersburg and Fort Lauderdale, but he let stand a late-session $2 million for the Urban League of Broward County.
His veto message said the re-entry programs could not be validated "as a comprehensive evidence-based model that would ensure successful outcomes for inmates reintegrating back into the community."
Scott also vetoed tens of millions of dollars from the current year's budget that were carried over to next year because the money hasn't been spent. The affected projects include the Bud and Dorie Day Patriots Trail in Fort Walton Beach, named for Florida's most highly decorated military veteran, George "Bud" Day, who died last year.
In all, Scott's list of line-item vetoes ran for 10 pages and totaled $461,387,164. His quick actions blind-sided legislators, who were not briefed beforehand on his decisions.
"I didn't know it was coming," said Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
In the end, Scott followed the advice of House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who urged the governor to "veto boldly."
He did, and quickly: The new budget passed the Legislature last Friday by votes of 37-0 in the Senate and 96-17 in the House. Passage came two months late, the result of a prolonged stalemate between the House and Senate over health care policy.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Michael Auslen and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.
(c)2015 Miami Herald