The week that was in Florida politics: $70 billion good, $143 million bad

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Gov. Rick Scott signed a $70 billion budget this week as he touted new money for education, but wielded more than $142 million in vetoes for projects he said the cash strapped state can’t afford.

Facing a budget that had already been cut after successive years of tough economic times, the governor’s veto pen used less ink this time, as he marked out far less than the $600 million he axed a year ago.

The courts were also busy this week as cases dealing with congressional and state Senate reapportionment wound their way through separate courts. The Florida Supreme Court took a look at revised maps for the state Senate while a few blocks away a circuit judge took arguments in a tussle over congressional districts drawn by the Republican-led Legislature.

Meanwhile, the focus continued on the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer back in February. A day before shooter George Zimmerman appeared on his own behalf, apologized to Martin’s family and was released on $150,000 bail, Scott introduced members of a committee set up to review Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law and related issues dealing with race, guns and citizen protection.

Serving as a backdrop, businesses and individuals observed a dubious anniversary as they marked two years since the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill shut down Florida’s tourism and seafood industries. Whether coincidental or not, the company this week outlined a $7.8 billion class action settlement that comes in additional to nearly $6.3 billion already spent.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

BUDGET

Scott kicked off the week by signing the state’s $70 billion budget. Meeting with elementary school students at Cunningham Creek Elementary School in St. Johns County, Scott used the occasion to tout a $1 billion increase in K-12 funding, a boost that critics were quick to point does not make up for nearly $1.3 billion in cuts made last year to state’s public schools.

“This budget is an education budget,” Scott told a small crowd of squirming but quiet elementary students at the school.

But attention turned to what the governor did not allow to remain in the state’s spending blueprint.

From local museums and neighborhood development projects to bigger items, Scott downsized the budget. Among the vetoes was $2 million less for attorneys to represent low-income residents through foreclosure proceedings, domestic violence hearings and consumer fraud cases. Critics say the cuts to the state’s civil legal assistance program will mean a 25 percent reduction in the number of attorneys available for legal assistance on civil matters in the coming year.

On the health care front, $38.2 million in vetoes hit the health- and human-services section of the budget, and some money for health-related projects also was eliminated from other parts of the spending plan.

The vetoes were only a tiny fraction of the roughly $29.9 billion that the state expects to spend in 2012-13 on health- and human-services programs, but still are expected to be felt by hospitals and others in health care.

“I focus on the hundreds and hundreds of projects and meritorious programs that were funded,” said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and chairman of the Senate HHS budget committee.

In a letter issued as part of the budget signing, Scott praised legislative decisions such as setting aside money for development of a new hospital-payment system in Medicaid and providing money for mental-health and substance-abuse programs.

REDISTRICTING

Democrats and three voting-rights organizations asked a Leon County judge to throw out newly-passed congressional districts this week in a battle likely to make its way to the Florida Supreme Court, maybe further.

In several hours of arguments before Circuit Court Judge Terry Lewis, the groups accused the Legislature of racial and political gerrymandering. The Legislature’s lawyer countered that the Democrat’s objections would mean that black voters would be parceled out among districts that would subsequently elect white Democrats.

The case marks the first time that a court has reviewed the congressional plan under the anti-gerrymandering Fair Districts amendments, approved by voters in a November 2010 referendum.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme got into action as it reviewed for the second time, maps outlining the state’s Senate districts. During testimony, the high court appeared to blunt arguments by Fair Districts that the revised plans still do not satisfy requirements under the act.

A GOVERNOR WHO IS RICH VS. A DEMOCRAT WHO IS NAMED RICH?

Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich confirmed this week that she’ll run for governor in 2014, the first to toss a hat in the ring to challenge the Republican governor.

The Democrat from Weston, in Broward County, said comments she made to Broward Democrats on Tuesday evening weren’t intended as a formal announcement but confirmed she’s in and “formulating a strategic and financial plan.”

Asked whether a liberal Jewish woman from South Florida can succeed in a statewide race, Rich said voters would have to decide that.

BP SPILL SECOND ANNIVERSARY.

Meanwhile Floridians marked the second anniversary of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill this week as the oil company came to terms with parties in a class action lawsuit over the explosion and fire that killed 11 and sent 4.9 million barrels of crude into the Gulf.

Two years after the explosion, BP has paid nearly $2.7 billion in claims to Florida businesses and individuals for damages caused by the worst spill in U.S. history.

Florida regions economically devastated by the spill that began April 20, 2010, have generally rebounded, as tourists have returned to the beaches.

Along with payments to individuals and businesses totaling more than $6.3 billion to date, BP has spent millions more to reimburse local and state governments from Louisiana to Florida on an array of fronts from helping market Florida seafood to restoring sand dunes and building parks in the Pensacola area.

But despite the dollars spent, critics say the long-range effects of the spill may take years to ascertain, while the issue slips from the collective memory of state and federal officials charged with making sure BP pays to clean up the mess.

STAND YOUR GROUND

Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday named the members of a task force formed to look at the state’s self-defense law in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s shooting death on Feb. 26.

Last month, as national outrage grew over the lack of an arrest in the case, Scott announced the task force and tapped Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to chair it. But he said at the time he would not name the panel members or schedule their first meeting until the criminal investigation was complete.

Now, with special prosecutor Angela Corey’s announcement last week that the acknowledged shooter, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, would face second-degree murder charges, Scott said the task force will meet starting May 1.

STORY OF THE WEEK:  Gov. Scott signs $70 billion budget, touts $1 billion for education.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “We’re not walking into this with any preconceived notions. We live in a state where the crime rate is at a 40-year low, and I want to keep it that way.” Gov. Rick Scott on naming a commission to examine the state’s stand your ground self defense law.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.