Palm Beach County jockeys to try to protect budget items from veto

By John Kennedy, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 26--Flooded with last-ditch appeals from lawmakers, lobbyists and community leaders, Gov. Rick Scott will sign the state's $77.1 billion budget as early as this week, while also crushing some dreams with the likely veto of millions of dollars in spending.

Money for replacing crumbling water pipes in the Glades and cash for a new Palm Beach State College campus are among dozens of Palm Beach County programs and projects whose fate hangs in the placement of Scott's pen.

The governor's re-election prospects also could be tipped by the scope of his vetoes.

The budget now before Scott is the largest in state history, and tea party conservatives clamoring for smaller government would rally behind a bounty of vetoes, similar to the $615 million in programs and projects Scott erased his first year as governor.

But voters in some political toss-up areas also might welcome an infusion of Tallahassee dollars, giving the governor incentive to go light on vetoes.

Scott has until midnight, June 4, to act.

"The governor gets the final review," said Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "But my sense is, he's going to call balls and strikes fairly.

"He's pleased we met his priorities with this budget, which includes the $500 million in tax and fee cuts he wanted," Negron added. "I just don't think politics will play into it."

The budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is Scott's fourth as governor. Scott's history so far has been a rollercoaster.

The record-setting $615 million in vetoes occurred just months after Scott was sworn in. While inflated with a singular, $305 million erasure of money for an environmental land-buying program he rejected, Scott's opening veto salvo was eye-catching.

Scott went easier in killing $142.7 million in legislative spending his second year. But he came back last year with $368 million in vetoes.

Incoming House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, among only a handful of lawmakers to vote against the state budget now before Scott, said he thinks the election-minded governor won't erase much this time.

"He gains more politically by cutting less," said Pafford, who said he opposed the budget because it fell short for Floridians needing services, especially health insurance.

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Pafford said he expects Scott to emphasize the budget's upside.

The blueprint for the 2014-15 fiscal year includes the cuts in taxes and fees that Scott made a priority with lawmakers. But it also added $3.1 billion to the state's reserves in addition to increases for social services, universities and public schools, including a 2.6 percent per-pupil increase for Florida's 2.7 million school children.

Most of the school increase will come from local school districts' property taxes, not state dollars, a disparity seized on by Democrats to accuse Republicans of supporting what amounts to a tax increase.

Of the $574.8 million boost for schools, almost $400 million stems from local property taxes -- with collections growing as post-recession property values rise.

But helped by an overall, $1.2 billion budget surplus, lawmakers did pour millions of dollars of state cash into hometown projects -- money for local arts programs, social services, roads and water projects.

These provisions are certain to draw sharp scrutiny from Scott, causing supporters of many items to make last-hour sales pitches to the governor's office.

There's almost $250,000 for a ballet school in Senate President Don Gaetz'sPanhandle district; $7 million goes to private Jacksonville University, where House Speaker Will Weatherford graduated.

Palm Beach County also drew its share of spending, local officials acknowledge.

There's $6 million for Palm Beach State College's proposed Loxahatchee Groves campus, vetoed three times in recent years by Scott and his predecessor, former Gov. Charlie Crist, now Scott's leading Democratic opponent.

"We're hopeful," said Grace Truman, a PBSC spokeswoman. "We have given the governor's staff a lot of information that justifies the need for this money. We began working this last year, after it was vetoed."

As part of this strategy, the college enhanced its Capitol profile this year, hiring Brian Ballard, a major Tallahassee lobbyist and Scott campaign fund-raiser.

Ballard has a contract with the PBSC Foundation that is valued at as much as $10,000, state disclosure records show.

"This year, the school has done a lot of things to put it in the right place," Ballard said.

The county also is looking to land $7.1 million in the budget to begin moving the 4th District Court of Appeal from an outmoded and moldy building on Palm Beach Lakes Boulevard to a still undecided downtown location.

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Money for roads, water projects, beach restoration and social services around the county also is tucked into the spending plan.

"Clearly it's a big budget with a lot of stuff in there," said Palm Beach County lobbyist Todd Bonlarron. "The governor is sure to trim in some areas. "But we've made a strong case for the kind of projects we have in the budget."

County officials also deployed some unorthodox approaches to changing Scott's mind about some spending earlier vetoed.

Last fall, officials brought Scott on a tour of a water treatment plant in Belle Glade. Later, they shipped pieces of corroded piping to Capitol legislative offices, where they sat as rusty reminders of the local wish list.

The county eventually landed $1 million in the budget that could advance plans to replace the leaking water system serving Belle Glade, South Bay and Pahokee.

Now it's up to the governor.

"We think the visuals may have helped," Bonlarron said. "But we'll find out soon."


(c)2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services



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