BRADENTON, Fla. – The Florida Legislature passed an $82.4 billion budget for 2018 that drew a veto threat from the governor.

Gov. Rick Scott, who found himself out of lockstep with the GOP-led body, criticized the final budget for failing to fund some of his highest priorities.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott
Florida Gov. Rick Scott said he will consider vetoing the 2018 budget passed by the Legislature.

Lawmakers slashed funds for tourism and economic development, and ignored the Republican governor’s request for $200 million to accelerate federal repairs on the weakened dike surrounding the state’s largest lake.

“The Florida Legislature passed a budget that was done largely behind closed doors,” Scott said Tuesday. “I am beginning to review the budget and I have the option of vetoing the entire budget or vetoing the items that circumvented the transparent process and do not have an acceptable return on investment for hardworking taxpayers.”

It has been 25 years since a Florida governor rejected an entire budget. Scott did use his line-item veto authority heavily during his early years in office.

Lawmakers pointed to the wide margins by which the spending plan was approved late Monday as an indication that it was well received by both chambers.

The Senate passed the budget 34-3, while the House voted 98-14 to approve it.

Scott crossed the state numerous times during the two-month session, drumming up public support for two agencies that he has said are essential to creating jobs.

Both agencies had been criticized by lawmakers for excessive spending and secrecy surrounding their contracts.

Scott said the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida, should be funded at $100 million. Lawmakers provided $25 million.

The governor sought $85 million for incentive payments to lure new businesses to the state through Enterprise Florida, begun originally as a public-private venture but financed largely with public money for many years. Legislators provided no funding for incentives, although the agency will get $16 million for operations.

During the session, Scott met with President Donald Trump and returned to Florida requesting that lawmakers include $200 million in the budget to advance Lake Okeechobee repairs. He said Trump promised to reimburse the state.

Lawmakers, concerned that Florida would not be repaid, gave nothing to the dike project saying that it is the responsibility of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“The Florida Legislature has turned their back on Florida’s ability to fund economic incentive deals that help our state out-compete our top competitors for important jobs,” Scott said. “This is very concerning to me and is an action that each member will have to defend as their local communities lose out on new manufacturing facilities, headquarter relocations and thousands of high-wage jobs for families.”

Scott, who is term-limited out of office after the 2018 election, focused on the secrecy surrounding budget negotiations. “It’s backroom deals like that make families think politics is nothing more than a game,” he said.

If Scott vetoes the budget, a two-thirds vote in each chamber would be required to override it.

The top two lawmakers who negotiated much of the budget in private - House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Stuart, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Land O’ Lakes – praised colleagues for supporting their priorities.

In addition to millions in tax cuts, the priorities included a controversial $419 million bill that makes numerous changes to K-12 education policy.

The legislation, a priority for Corcoran, calls for $140 million to be used to create a new category of charter school called the “Schools of Hope” program.

Critics say the hope program amounts to inviting a new kind of charter schools – likely from out-of-state – to complete with underfunded public schools. Under the hope program, charter schools would receive funding for operating in low-income neighborhoods where public schools have received failing grades.

The League of Women Voters of Florida wrote Scott Tuesday asking him to veto the budget, largely because of the multitude of new education policies and funding the league said would “starve public schools and expand privately run charter schools.”

“The proposed budget harms 90% of our children,” said League President Pamela Goodman, who added that the base funding amount for each student would be lower than the state funding provided in 2012. Goodman also criticized the lack of transparency in devising the budget bill and related conforming measures, which she said prevented many lawmakers from having time to read them before passage.

Another problem, Goodman said, is that the budget provides no funding for the purchase of land for environmental conservation under the Florida Forever program, despite a constitutional amendment passed by 75% of voters in 2014 authorizing land buys.

Former Congresswoman Gwen Graham, a Democrat who has announced she will run for governor next year, issued a statement asking Scott to veto “the legislature’s education-eviscerating budget and dangerous policy bill.”

“Once again, Republicans say this budget increases funding for students but any teacher or parent can tell you it’s a lie,” said Graham, the daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham.

“We haven’t yet recovered from Rick Scott’s first year of devastating education cuts, and now they want to reduce per-student funding to school districts even more," she said. "This terrible trend should end today with Governor Scott’s immediate veto of the budget and policy bill.”

The Legislature’s final version of spending plan for the fiscal year starting July 1 is about $1.1 billion less that the governor had recommended.

It places $1.2 billion in the working capital reserve and $1.4 billion in the budget stabilization fund.

Another $667 million can be tapped in an emergency from the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund, an account created to fund affordable housing projects.

The total amount of bonding lawmakers authorized was not immediately available, said a spokeswoman for the Senate, which led development of the budget this year.

Senate Bill 10, a bond-financed reservoir project championed by Negron, passed both chambers but with a lower financing amount than originally sought. The bill initially authorized up to $1.2 billion in bonds for the project, but the final version reduced the amount to $800 million. Scott signed SB 10 on Tuesday.

The project authorizes a $1.5 billion reservoir that the state hopes will be partially funded by the federal government and built south of Lake Okeechobee.

The reservoir is designed to capture polluted overflow water from the lake that has caused harmful algae blooms to sprout along the state’s coasts.

“After twenty years of talking, southern storage is finally becoming a reality,” Negron said, after Scott signed the bill. “We are well on our way to putting the harmful discharges from Lake Okeechobee into the pages of history, instead of the front pages of daily newspapers.”

The Legislature’s budget includes $400 million of right of way and bridge construction bonds and $10 million of debt for the new Transportation Financing Corporation, according to the Department of Transportation.

House Bill 865, which is headed for Scott's desk, could also lead to new financing. The omnibus measure authorizing various Department of Transportation programs and projects orders the DOT to do an economic feasibility study of acquiring the Garcon Point Bridge in Santa Rosa County by taking out its defaulted bonds.

Sponsor Rep. Jayer Williamson, R-Pace, could not immediately be reached for comment about the bridge study, which he added to the bill with an amendment late last month. Until now, state officials and legislators have refused to consider bailing out the bridge, whose bonds have been in the default since 2011.

The bridge is owned by the defunct Santa Rosa Bay Bridge Authority, which issued $75.5 million of current interest bonds and $19.4 million of capital appreciation bonds in 1996 to build span across East Bay in the state’s panhandle.

The bonds were accelerated Jan. 1, 2013 by the trustee. Since then, bond payments have been made as toll revenues became available, although the revenue continues to fall short of the debt service schedule.

The feasibility study requested by Williamson could mean taking out the debt, which totaled $134.8 million as of Jan. 1, 2017 and includes accretion of interest due to the CABs. An earlier version of HB 865 would have authorized DOT to arrange for the purchase of the bridge through a refinancing, but that language was stricken shortly before the bill passed.

DOT spokesman Dick Kane said his agency has not studied the potential acquisition of the bridge, what it would cost, or whether bondholders would be asked to accept haircuts.

“The study required by the language of the enrolled bill would be expected to address the potential cost of an acquisition as a component of reviewing economic feasibility,” Kane said Monday.

The study is due to the governor, Senate president and House speaker by Jan. 1.

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