Florida Governor Rick Scott signs $69.9B budget, vetoes $142.7M

ST. JOHNS, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott, using a top-rated elementary school in suburban Jacksonville as a backdrop, signed the state's $69.9 billion budget into law Tuesday.

Before the signing, the Republican governor also vetoed $142.7 million by eliminating spending items ranging from museums to medical schools sprinkled throughout the budget by the GOP-led Legislature.

Scott vetoed less than he did last year, saying lawmakers had heeded his warnings to give him evidence of why the money is needed and what taxpayers would get in return.

The governor said, for example, that's why he had decided to spare nearly $4 million for the public television stations after vetoing their money last year. He also kept $5 million for a Sarasota rowing center he previously vetoed because local officials have agreed to repay the state if the project fails to boost sales tax revenue as promised.

"I'm comfortable we are spending the money wisely," Scott said. "We are focused on the families that are paying the taxes."

Two private universities were among the hardest hit by Scott's vetoes. He rejected $3.1 million for the University of Miami's medical school and smaller amounts for its marine science and film programs. He also vetoed $6 million for various medical and health programs at Nova Southeastern University and $3 million for the Florida Medical Schools Quality Network.

Other health care vetoes included millions for mental health facilities around the state, $2 million for aging resource centers and $4 million for a program that helps Medicaid patients choose managed care plans.

Scott axed $12.2 million for local environmental improvement projects including $3.5 million for an airport sewage line in Hendry County and $2.3 million for a wastewater treatment plant in LaBelle. He rejected $8.9 million in community service grants, including $5 million for public infrastructure in Miami.

The governor also vetoed $12.3 million for expressway authorities, $2.45 million for a program to help juvenile offenders transition back to the community, $1.5 million in local library grants and $250,000 for security at the presidential debate set for Lynn University in Boca Raton.

He also vetoed smaller amounts for the Florida Aquarium, Haitian Heritage Museum Project, Bay of Pigs Museum, Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida, Heritage Trail Network Black History House in Tallahassee and the Florida African-American Heritage Preservation Network.

Scott sidestepped, at least for the moment, the contentious issue of creating a 12th state university in Lakeland. Scott left intact $33 million budgeted for Florida Polytechnic, but said he still hasn't decided whether to sign a separate bill (SB 1994) that would transform an existing University of South Florida branch into the new school. Scott has until Saturday to act.

The governor said he believed the Board of Governors, which oversees the 11 public universities, would limit tuition increases to 5 percent although state law allows for up to 15 percent. The governor's press office later issued a statement saying the governor meant to refer only to state and community college tuition, which the budget will increase by 5 percent. The statement noted tuition increases are not subject to vetoes although that issue hasn't been constitutionally tested.

The Legislature did not specify a university tuition increase, but the budget is written to accommodate the full 15 percent if approved by the board.

Scott signed the budget (HB 5001) for the fiscal year beginning July 1, at Cunningham Creek Elementary in northern St. Johns County. It is in St. Johns, an unincorporated, upscale bedroom community.

The new budget doesn't raise taxes while eliminating 4,000 state positions, slashing money for hospitals and universities and potentially cutting services provided by county court clerks by forcing them to lay off 900 workers.

Scott and GOP legislative leaders praised the budget because it includes the $1 billion increase he proposed for public schools.

Critics said it doesn't cover the $1.3 billion cut they got last year and most of it is eaten up by a drop in property tax revenues, loss of federal funding, a growing student population and other new expenses. That has school officials contemplating layoffs and the elimination of such programs as arts and athletics.

Florida Education Association president Andy Ford called the budget "a dismal failure." The statewide teachers union leader noted school funding levels will still be lower than five years ago.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, defended the budget, saying it will foster a stable and reliable business climate.

"The $1 billion increase in education funding takes this commitment one step further by ensuring that Florida remains home to a workforce equipped with the education and skills needed to compete and lead in the global economy," Cannon said in a statement.

Critics also noted lawmakers still managed to set

aside money for hometown projects such as the Sarasota rowing center and about $120 million for tax cuts, including a renewal of the state's popular back-to-school sales tax holiday in August. They also agreed to increase the number of companies that would no longer have to pay the state's corporate income tax.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith called the budget "an assault on the middle class" because it puts "special interests ahead of investing in education.

The budget cuts reimbursement rates for nursing homes and hospitals and slashes university budgets by $300 million by requiring the schools to dip into their reserves.

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On the Net:     Governor's Budget Website: http://www.flgov.com/budget/

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