TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott vetoed a record $615 million in spending as he pared an already austere $70 billion budget by cutting money for school construction, social services and environmental land- buying programs.
Surrounded by well-wishers Thursday at an event paid for by the Republican Party of Florida, Scott unveiled the additional spending cuts for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.
“Families and businesses are reducing their spending and working to limit their debt,” Scott said in a letter outlining his vetoes. “I promised Floridians that their state government will make these same fiscally responsible choices.”
The governor’s action brought immediate criticism from Democrats and even some within his own party, who questioned the need for such drastic cuts after lawmakers have already wrestled with a $3.6 billion deficit brought on by a slower-than-expected economic recovery in the historically growth-driven state.
“The Republican-run Legislature passed a budget that is guaranteed to impact the lives of every Floridian,” said Representative Alan Williams, a Democrat from Tallahassee. “In the face of a global economic recession, core public services for the citizens of this State will be difficult to maintain.”
The Republican governor’s popularity has plunged since he took office in January, in part because of his budget proposals. A Quinnipiac University poll said this week that 57 percent of registered voters in Florida disapprove of his performance -- making him the most unpopular governor in the 10 states it has polled the year.
Among the big-ticket items that did not survive Scott’s red Sharpie were $165 million for construction, remodeling and renovation projects earmarked for Florida’s universities, state colleges and K-12 public schools.
The governor also rejected $305 million in spending authority for the state’s environmental land-buying program. But the item will likely save less than $10 million in cash because the tight state budget will make it difficult to purchase conservation lands in the near term.
Scott’s actions received cautious approval by legislative leaders, who lauded the governor for signing the spending plan but were mute on whether they would attempt to override any of his vetoes. With the additional cuts, the state will have about $2 billion in reserve funds.
“The Senate will thoughtfully review each of Governor Scott’s vetoes,” Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican, said in a statement.
Scott’s budget proposal called for deeper cuts than the compromise bill approved by the state Legislature earlier in May. Among his proposals was a $458 million cut in the corporate income tax. Lawmakers approved cuts of $30 million.
Scott had also called on public employees to contribute 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. They do not pay anything now. The Legislature approved 3 percent and turned down his proposal to start putting them into a cheaper retirement program.
Of the $1.7 billion in cuts in taxes and fees that the governor requested, lawmakers approved $308 million, saying the poor economy made additional cuts particularly painful.
“The people of Florida sent us to Tallahassee to make hard choices during difficult times,” said House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican from Winter Park. “We produced a responsible state budget that prioritizes the critical needs of our state, and I am proud that budget was signed into law.”
Editing by Jane Sutton and Jan Paschal