Rick Scott ready to sift through record $77.1B Florida budget

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On the desk of Gov. Rick Scott sits Florida’s record $77.1 billion, election-year budget, accompanied by 21 other bills, including a measure to increase highway speeds the governor expects to veto.

Scott now has 15 days to analyze every line of the 431-page budget, balancing legislators’ “turkeys” against the political points gained by passing — or vetoing — different items.

Neither the governor nor his staff have provided hints as to what will stay or go, writes Jim Turner of the News Service of Florida.

HB 5001, the largest spending plan in Florida’s history, allocates a substantial surplus, including additional money for public schools, state colleges and universities, as well as environmental projects and child welfare, all while keeping $500 million in tax and fee cuts that have become the main talking point of Scott’s re-election effort.

A few of the more extraordinary items in the 2014-2015 budget are $2 million for public transportation improvements around the 1,000-foot SkyRise Miami tower, $123,000 for a Jacksonville dog park and $350,000 for restoration of a Palm Beach fountain designed by Addison Mizner.

Florida governors have line-item veto power over budgets. Last year, Scott slashed $368 million the initial $74.5 billion budget. In 2012, he cut $142.7 million and in his first year in office, Scott nixed $615 million.

Florida Democrats are calling for Scott to veto “pork” in the budget, and instruct the Republican-dominated Legislature to shift more money to educational programs.

“With over a billion dollars in new revenue this year,” said Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant, “there’s no excuse for public schools not to be fully funded.”

However, this budget has the highest education funding rates – in terms of total dollars — in Florida history. But on a per-student basis, education funding remains $190 below the levels they were at the start of the 2008 financial collapse.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron believes the governor will not have an easy time finding “pork” in this budget.

“The burden of proof rests with an individual legislator on any budget item, but I’ve had good conversations with Gov. Scott and with his budget staff,” Negron told the News Service of Florida. “I strongly disagree with the assertion about pork in the budget. Under our constitution, the Legislature is the appropriating body. The budget should contain items that individual, elected legislators think are important to their community.”

The budget includes $7.1 million for a new West Palm Beach Fourth District Court of Appeal courthouse, Negron noted. The item, which the Stuart Republican backed, is different from the overpriced $48.8 million First District Court of Appeal building in Tallahassee, referred to as the “Taj Mahal.”

“The (Fourth District) building will be smaller, it will be more efficient, it will be appropriate for what is transpiring in the building,” said Negron. “We’re going to show how a public building can be done in a very efficient and effective way.”

Replacing the 44-year-old courthouse in West Palm Beach comes as the old building has mold in the courtrooms, needing nearly $3 million in renovations to conform with security and Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Also eyeing the budget is Florida TaxWatch, the Tallahassee-based government watchdog group that creates an annual list of “turkeys” – projects the group recommends the governor should veto.

TaxWatch spokesperson Morgan McCord said there is no set date for the release of the turkey list.

Other than the budget, Scott will also consider 21 other bills, including SB 392, a measure to allow the state Department of Transportation to increase certain highway speeds from 70 mph to 75 mph.

Last week, Scott declared he would “stand with law enforcement,” in opposition of higher speed limits.

Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, who was a co-sponsor of the measure, intends to refile the proposal next year.

SB 2514 is another bill waiting Scott’s signature that provides a second chance to determine the future of the Coast to Coast Connector bike and pedestrian path.

The trail, sponsored by incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, has $15 million in the budget to link the existing piecemeal trails across Central Florida.

Scott vetoed the bike path last year, when it was a $50 million line item, payable over five years.

Gardiner, considers the project as an economic driver, has lobbied to change Scott’s mind on the trail connecting Titusville to St. Petersburg.

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.