The week that was in Florida politics: Scott signs budget, then heads south of the border

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It was probably just a coincidence that Gov. Rick Scott signed the budget just hours before hopping on a plane to a South American country about as far away as you can get from Florida without leaving the hemisphere.

After all, given how lawmakers sometimes react to the line-item vetoes that accompany the official signing of the spending plan, Scott might have been forgiven for wanting to approve the budget Monday and skip town. And his trade mission to Chile provided a perfect excuse.

But if that was the plan, it wasn’t necessary. Awash with surplus money, the mood of most people watching the state budget ranged from reserved to appreciative. There were some complaints, but there always are. There was a controversy Scott faced this week, but it had little to do with the money the Legislature spent and more to do with the money a state-backed insurer doled out.

A round-up via the News Service of Florida.

BUDGET BACK-AND-FORTH

In all, Scott cut just shy of $368 million in funding from the budget (SB 1500), bringing its overall total down to $74.1 billion. Depending on whether you look at it by raw numbers or adjust it for inflation and population, the spending plan was either the largest in state history or one of the smallest since 2000.

“We made strategic investments in this budget, while holding the line on spending that does not give Florida taxpayers a positive return on investment,” Scott wrote in a letter accompanying his vetoes. “In order to ensure all taxpayer funds are well spent, I have vetoed special legislative projects totaling $368 million.”

The reaction from Republican legislators was muted. Senate President Don Gaetz, who compared Florida TaxWatch to British loyalists for recommending Scott veto budget “turkeys,” instead sounded like a constitutional scholar in his response to the actual cuts.

“While many will disagree with some of Governor Scott’s line item vetoes, that is his constitutional role as chief executive,” said Gaetz, R-Niceville, in a statement released by his office.

That left Democrats to slam Scott and, in a bizarre twist, essentially praise the budget that passed the Republican-dominated Legislature.

“At a time when our state is coming out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, investments in education, transportation, health and human services, and infrastructure are absolutely essential to communities across Florida,” said Florida Democratic Party Executive Director Scott Arceneaux. “But instead of joining in the Senate’s bipartisan consensus around this year’s budget, Governor Scott imposed his rigid ideology on our state to the detriment of Florida’s future.”

Reactions also poured in from across the state, and across state government.

One winner was the Florida Guardian ad Litem program, which picked up $3.8 million to increase volunteers to represent dependent children in the court system and $323,000 to provide attorneys ad litem for disabled dependent children in nursing homes.

“I anticipate that soon more than 75 percent of the children who need a (guardian ad litem) will finally have that voice advocating for them,” wrote GAL director Alan Abramowitz to staff and volunteers.

Others were less fortunate. Scott once again whacked funding for legal aid to low-income Floridians. He vetoed $1 million for the program, in line with similar decisions from his first two years in dealing with the spending plan.

“The Legislature understands the need,” said Kent Spuhler, executive director of Florida Legal Services. “They were providing funding even during the recession. But we have never been able to convince the governor.”

Scott said the money isn’t needed.

“The Attorney General is distributing $5 million from the National Mortgage Settlement directly to civil legal aid offices to assist homeowners in danger of foreclosure,” he wrote in a veto message. “The Attorney General will receive an additional $10 million, through Senate Bill 1852, to distribute directly to these civil legal aid offices in Fiscal Year 2013-2014.”

A CHILE MAY

While the governor was traveling to Chile, his office announced that before taking off, Scott had quietly signed an elections bill (HB 7013) aimed at getting rid of snafus that plagued parts of Florida in November. But for the most part, Scott was focused on trade.

The governor brought home two major announcements from his sojourn to the South American nation, which clocks in at No. 7 on the state’s list of trade partners with $7.7 billion in business. First came word that Santiago-based Crystal Lagoons Corporation, a pool manufacturer which built the largest pool in the world in Algarrobo, Chile, would move its headquarters to Florida.

There were no immediate job numbers available for that catch, but Scott returned to announce that Atton Hotels would build a hotel in Miami. Set to open in 2015, the 270-room property is expected to bring 170 new jobs to the state and a $55 million investment, Scott’s office said.

Coming a week after the state’s jobless rate checked in below the national average for the second month in a row, the mission gave Scott ammo to back up his new campaign motto and Twitter hashtag: #ItsWorking.

“With the recent news that our unemployment rate has dropped below the national average to 7.2 percent and the creation of nearly 330,000 private-sector jobs since we took office, it is clear the policies we are implementing to attract global companies like Atton Hotels to Florida are working,” he said.

Scott wasn’t the only one doing some traveling this week. Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, stopped in five cities Wednesday and Thursday to tout the success of their “Work Plan Florida” agenda.

A HERITAGE OF CONTROVERSY

More controversial for Scott than his vetoes was a decision by the board of state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. to pay St. Petersburg-based Heritage Property & Casualty Insurance Co. up to $52 million for taking as many as 60,000 policies from among Citizens’ less-risky personal lines accounts and coastal accounts.

The deal followed a similar agreement with Weston Insurance in February, though that company will get up to $63 million for removing a little more than 30,000 wind-only policies. But the Heritage deal came under fire after media reports pointed out that the company contributed $100,000 on March 5 and $10,000 on March 18 to “Let’s Get to Work,” a committee backing Scott’s re-election.

Scott’s office and Citizens officials said the agreement was not directed by Scott.

“Not a single solitary member of the Legislature or the executive branch contacted me in any way, asked me to act on this,” said Citizens Chairman Carlos Lacasa, who supported the 3-2 vote that authorized action by the eight-member board.

One member of the board abstained and two more weren’t on the teleconference meeting.

The Republican Party of Florida shrugged off complaints from Democrats — aimed at Scott — as politically motivated. But by the end of the week, even some GOP lawmakers were beginning to sound uneasy with the deal, even if they didn’t knock Scott.

“Just a few weeks ago, we passed a comprehensive insurance bill with bipartisan support aimed at responsibly reducing the number of Citizen policies at no cost,” Weatherford said in a statement issued by his office Friday. “While we want to provide the legislatively created Citizens Insurance Corporation the flexibility to take advantage of ideas and initiatives that will reduce risk to Florida, there is a growing concern about their lack of understanding that Citizens has a greater responsibility to the public.” 

STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott signed the fiscal 2013-14 budget passed by the Legislature, but only after shaving $386 million in projects and programs from the plan.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Partisan political shenanigans are not ‘state secrets.’ “–1st District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Robert Benton, dissenting from an opinion allowing lawmakers to avoid testifying about the redistricting process as part of a lawsuit claiming politics played an unconstitutional role in mapmaking.

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.