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All eyes on Gov. Rick Scott as he considers budget veto options

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott keeps a veto pen on his desk, but considering his total frustration with the 2017 Legislature, it looks more like a machete.

Now the question is whether he's willing to use it.

Ignored by his fellow Republicans, Scott is considering massive line-item vetoes in the new $82.4 billion budget. He's also considering something more drastic: a veto of the entire budget, which hasn't happened in 25 years.

"I haven't decided," Scott said Wednesday in Washington. "I'll do what I've done the last six years. I'll look at what's good for the state and I'll make the decisions. … This political process is not what I'm worried about. I'm worried about the people I represent."

Scott has been furious for weeks at lawmakers' rejection of three priorities that cost a total of $400 million — a relative pittance in the budget.

He wanted $100 million apiece for both Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency, and Visit Florida, a tourism marketing program, and $200 million to repair a dike at Lake Okeechobee to help reduce discharges of toxic algae in nearby waterways.

If Scott vetoes the whole budget, the Legislature must reconvene before June 30, when the fiscal year expires, and either pass a budget Scott will sign or override his veto by two-thirds votes in both chambers, which could have disastrous political consequences for Scott.

If Scott does not veto the budget, he's likely to be criticized for not taking full advantage of his power to back up his words.

Scott has said on several occasions that the budget has too little money for schools and that it was written secretly, a charge that Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran deny.

Scott's most likely options are:

• Veto the entire budget. That invites an override vote, which would restore the Legislature's proposed budget. Scott would forfeit his right to veto specific line items in the revived budget.

• Veto the education budget along with two bills tied to the budget, one that expands charter schools and teacher bonuses (HB 7069) and another that imposes new oversight of Visit Florida (HB 5501), along with most hometown projects sponsored by individual lawmakers.

• Veto specific budget projects, especially those sponsored by the lawmakers who opposed him, for programs such as after-school care; housing and equipment for nonprofit groups; roads; festivals; and meals for seniors.

Ironically, Corcoran's call for full disclosure of which legislators are behind which projects makes it easier than ever for Scott to find — and punish — his enemies.

"I hope he doesn't veto the entire budget, because he'd get overridden," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist and Scott ally who has many clients awaiting budget items. "I hope he doesn't do that, unless he's got a vote count that's airtight."

A legislative override of a budget veto looks easy, which is why Scott's not likely to do that. Such an action would be politically humiliating for Scott at a time when he's entering his final year in office and is weighing a bid for the U.S. Senate.

The budget passed the Senate with strong bipartisan majorities in both chambers.

The votes were 34-4 vote in the Senate and 98-14 in the House.

Negron told the Times/Herald that he's not worried and that he hopes to talk to Scott soon.

"I plan to make my case to the governor on the budget and policy priorities," Negron said.

Whichever veto option Scott chooses is almost certain to aggravate his already strained relations with legislative leaders going into an election year session in January.

Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes lawyer with a take-no-prisoners style and an interest in higher office, led the charge to cut tourism marketing money to $25 million and to wipe out job-incentive programs he calls wasteful and useless.

That makes him Scott's most conspicuous target of payback.

That's why a safer prediction at the moment is that Scott will veto HB 7069, a massive 278-page education policy bill that creates and funds a new "Schools of Hope" charter school program at $200 million, spends $400 million to expand bonuses for teachers and principals and requires 20 minutes a day of recess for elementary school students.

Corcoran told the Times/Herald that if Scott vetoes the education policy bill, he risks offending "recess moms" and parents of children with disabilities who also benefit from the bill.

"It's the greatest pro-parent, pro-student, pro-teacher education bill ever to come out of the state of Florida," Corcoran said. "(President) Donald Trump has said that choice in education is a No. 1 priority. There isn't a better choice bill in America right now than that one right there."

Scott's veto can be overridden by two-thirds votes of both houses, or 80 House members and 27 senators.

There are 120 House members and 38 senators, with one seat vacant and one senator in a prolonged absence for medical reasons.

Despite large Republican majorities in both houses, overriding a veto is difficult, and it rarely happens.

For example, the Senate vote on Corcoran's charter school bill was 20 to 18, with three Republicans voting no.

The Senate would have to persuade seven opponents to change their votes.

The League of Women Voters of Florida wants Scott to veto the entire budget on the grounds that it "starves" public schools, has no new money for the Florida Forever program and was crafted in too much secrecy.

The league cited statements by several lawmakers that the last-minute budget deals were conducted in private by a few, and that too much substantive policy was put in conforming bills tied to the budget that are subject to up-or-down votes and cannot be amended.

"Right these wrongs," league president Pamela Goodman said in a letter to Scott.

The budget (SB 2500) was formally enrolled Wednesday at the Capitol, meaning that it can be given to Scott at any time.

Negron alone will decide when that occurs. After that, Scott has 15 days to act, but he's likely to decide sooner.

Times Washington bureau chief Alex Leary contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. Follow @stevebousquet.

All eyes on Gov. Rick Scott as he considers budget veto options 05/10/17 [Last modified: Thursday, May 11, 2017 12:19am]
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