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Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a $69.1 billion state budget Thursday, but before doing that he vetoed a record $615 million in spending, including money for environmental land purchases, college and university buildings, homeless veterans, public broadcasting and local projects ranging from health care to rowing.
The new Republican governor vetoed more than 150 line items after the GOP-controlled Legislature already had chopped nearly $4 billion in spending.
The austere spending plan is expected to result in layoffs for hundreds if not thousands of public employees, including teachers. A new retirement provision also will effectively cut the pay of those who still have jobs.
Scott went to The Villages, a central Florida retirement community that's a GOP and tea party stronghold, to sign the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 rather than do it in Tallahassee, home to thousands of public employees.
Sumter County sheriff's deputies escorted about two dozen protesters, some holding signs saying "Pink Slip Rick," from the town square. That's where Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, spoke to about 200 supporters at what one GOP staffer called a private event.
"I came out to support Rick Scott because his ratings are low, but I know that it's not always popular to do the right thing," said Tony LaRocco, a local tea party member who held an American flag and wore a T-shirt with "In God We Trust" on it.
Scott signed the budget a day after a Quinnipiac University poll showed his job-approval rating had sunk to 29 percent.
"We made the hard choices, now let's get to work," Scott told the crowd, echoing his campaign slogan.
Scott's office billed the spending plan as a "historic jobs budget." Scott believes shrinking government and cutting taxes will help businesses create more private-sector jobs. The spending plan includes $308 million in tax cuts, mostly in water management district property taxes.
Democrats, though, are calling the budget a job-killer because it eliminates about 4,500 state positions, most of them filled, and cuts $1.35 billion from education, which is expected to cause more layoffs in school districts.
"I think it's morally wrong what the governor is doing," said John Hickey, another Villages resident, who stood across the street after protesters were banished. "He says he is fighting for education, yet in my county they are talking about having to cut back to four days a week in the schools."
Nearly half of the veto total savings came from eliminating funding -- $305 million -- for the Florida Forever land-buying program, but those dollars are contingent upon the state selling surplus property for the same amount.
Scott also vetoed about $165 million in college and university construction projects and eliminated all state funding -- $4.8 million -- for public television and radio. Local projects vetoed include $1 million for a medical and dental program in Lake Wakes and $5 million for a rowing facility in Sarasota County.
Other vetoed appropriations include $2 million for research on a plant disease that's threatening the state's multibillion-dollar citrus industry, $10 million for St. Johns River restoration, $6 million to help the Panhandle's economy recover from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and $3 million for a disadvantaged youth jobs program.
Scott also signed a budget-conforming bill that will require teachers, state workers and many local government employees to pay 3 percent of their wages into the Florida Retirement System, now funded entirely by taxpayers. Democrats call it an "income tax" for public employees.
A fellow Republican, House Speaker Dean Cannon, faulted the governor for taking a belated interest in education funding.
Scott said the Legislature should reallocate savings from his vetoes to public schools although he had proposed a bigger cut in education spending than what lawmakers approved.
"I'm sure most of you here today agree with me that hiring a few more quality teachers here in Sumter County should take priority over spending 500,000 taxpayer dollars on a new barn for race horses," Scott said, referring to one of the vetoed items.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, noted in a statement that Scott's vetoes freed only $100 million in general revenue. The rest are trust fund dollars, either dedicated to specific purposes such as Florida Forever or one-time money usually not spent on recurring expenses such as salaries.
The $100 million would only slightly reduce a 7.9 percent cut in spending for each student to 7.3 percent, Cannon said. Scott recommended a 10 percent cut at a similar rally about four months ago, when he announced his budget recommendations in Eustis, just a few miles from The Villages.
"The governor communicated numerous priorities during the session, and we did our best to accommodate him," Cannon said. "It would have been helpful if the governor had shared this newfound emphasis with us before the budget was finalized."
Cannon said the vetoed spending would be added to $2 billion in reserves the Legislature already has set aside.
The vetoes included $400,000 for a study of Cannon's proposal to expand the Florida Supreme Court and split it in half, one division each for civil and criminal cases.
"The Senate will thoughtfully review each of Governor Scott's vetoes," Senate President Mike Haridopolos said in a statement.
If lawmakers don't like what they see, they could override the votes. Haridopolos and Cannon could call a special session for that purpose or wait until the Legislature's next regular session in January.
Scott also vetoed $12 million for a homeless veterans program in Brevard County pushed by Haridopolos, a Brevard resident.
Scott spoke standing in front of a sign saying "Promises Made, Promises Kept."
While lawmakers gave Scott some of what he promised, the budget falls well short of giving him everything.
Scott wants to phase out Florida's $2 billion corporate income tax. He scaled back his first-year proposal to a $458 million cut, but the Legislature gave him only $30 million. Overall, he asked for $1.7 billion in tax and fee cuts but got only $308 million.
The governor proposed public employees contribute 5 percent to their retirement. The Legislature approved 3 percent and turned down his proposal to start putting them into a cheaper retirement program.
Most business groups applauded Scott's budget decisions with the notable exception of the Florida Transportation Builders Association, which wanted Scott to veto a shift of $150 million from road and bridge projects to education.
"To me it wasn't much of a choice," Scott said. "We're putting that $150 million into education.