With strong backing from business interests and tea party conservatives, the way appears clear for Gov. Rick Scott to make "significant" cuts in the Legislature's $69.7 billion spending plan.
Before Scott signs the budget at a scheduled ceremony at The Villages Thursday afternoon, he is expected to exercise his line-item veto power to eliminate hundreds of millions, if not billions, of expenditures.
Scott is keeping his choices confidential, but he said last week that he expects to make "significant" reductions in the lawmakers' budget that came in nearly $4 billion above his $66 billion proposal.
Florida TaxWatch on Tuesday identified $203 million in "budget turkeys" that could be axed. The 105 targeted projects, which were inserted by legislators outside the customary committee-review process, are heavily weighted toward college campuses and assorted other public facilities.
The plumpest "turkey," $12 million for a homeless veterans center in Brevard County, is slated for the district of Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
At minimum, Scott should eliminate such "member-driven" projects,says Associated Industries of Florida.
"We would think that both presiding officers will honor the governors actions this week, especially if he cuts some of the more 'member-driven' projects," said Jose Gonzalez, AIF's vice president for governmental affairs.
But with TaxWatch's turkey flock representing less than 0.3 percent of the proposed state outlays, Scott is sure to cut deeper. And his supporters aren't averse to him hacking away.
"The governors original budget was incredibly well-received by the business community for its aggressive stance on issues like pension reform, tax cuts and cuts to government services.We felt it sent a strong message of where the governors priorities are," Gonzalez said.
"Unfortunately, it was probably too bold a plan for the Legislature, where political realities and constituencies play a much larger role," Gonzalez added.
Representatives from the Florida Chamber of Commerce did not return phone calls on Wednesday.
As Scott balances politics and principles, tea party groups that played a key role in his election last year are hoping the governor holds firmly to the latter.
"Anything that does not create jobs or that increases spending should be cut. We elected him on his platform to create jobs, and that's what we expect him to do with this budget," said Billie Tucker, head of the First Coast Tea Party in Jacksonville.
Danita Kilkullen, head of Tea Party Fort Lauderdale, wants Scott to get back to his original $66 billion proposal.
"His plan to trim billions from health care, Medicaid, education, property taxes, pensions, prisons, etc., is designed to put more money into the hands of the taxpayers," Kilkullen said."Privatize as many programs as possible."
The failure of the Legislature to fully enact Scott's pension reform dealt a blow to the governor's cost-saving campaign. By only requiring government employees to contribute 3 percent -- instead of 5 percent -- to their retirement, lawmakers left taxpayers to pick up more than $1 billion in ongoing costs.
Henry Kelley, head of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party, says Scott could realize big savings if he stops the controversial SunRail proposal in its tracks.
"I would like to know whether its the Legislature's fault or the governors that funding for SunRail is still in the budget," Kelley said of the commuter train venture planned for Central Florida.
"He should apply the same metric to SunRail that was applied to high-speed rail, and reach the same conclusion to reject funding," Kelley said.
Scott has not said which way he will go on SunRail, whose 30-year price tag is estimated at $2.7 billion by the Florida Department of Transportation.
But state Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, says there are hundreds of millions of SunRail dollars embedded in the current budget and ripe for the plucking.
Fred O'Neal, founder of the Florida TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party, urged the governor to slay TaxWatch's turkeys, and then go further in the future.
"TaxWatch has a pretty good list of turkeys. I'd go along with trimming all those turkeys from the budget," he said.
Beyond that, O'Neal added, "One huge cut in education spending would be to authorize vouchers as a way to encourage parents to take their kids out of the public school system and either home school them or put them in private schools.
"We spend around $10,000 per year per public school student [required local effort included]. A $2,000 voucher per student per year would represent a net savings to the taxpayers of $8,000 per student per year."
But, O'Neal added on a sober note, "The teachers' unions and the vendorsinvested in increased spending on public education will never let that happen."
Within the confines of the 2012 spending plan, a tea party leader, who asked not to be identified, predicted, "The story on Thursday isn't going to be how much is being spent, but how much is being cut."
The specter of big cuts raises the possibility of overrides by the Legislature, where Republicans hold "veto-proof" majorities. But because both branches of government are controlled by Republicans, observers say the chances for a confrontation are diminished.
"I would not think there are enough votes to override any key issues," Kelley said."It was fairly clear there is a group in the Senate that swung the votes on key issues, and I would be surprised if anyone can put enough critical mass behind any single item."
AIF's Gonzalez was similarly skeptical of a veto war.
"Seeing that the Legislature was not able to come close to the governors original $66 billion spending plan, we would venture to say that their desire to override any budget vetoes may not be that strong," he said.
Straddling between Scott and GOP lawmakers, the Republican Party of Florida issued a statement that attempted to downplay the differences.
"Since taking office, Governor Scott has focused on holding government accountable while creating opportunities for our state to grow and create jobs," the statement said.
Then, in a nod to lawmakers' enlarged spending plan, the RPOF statement added, "This budget accomplishes those goals and much more."
While media outlets have criticized Scott's tough fiscal agenda, a Quinnipiac Poll released this week suggested that the public didn't think any better of lawmakers willing to spend $4 billion more. With their poll numbers lagging, neither Scott nor the Legislature may figure there's anything to be gained by a prolonged internal party feud.
Along those lines, "progressive" groups and outvoted Democrats -- looking for a chance to make political hay at a veto-override session -- were laying traps Wednesday, calling on Scott to veto the entire budget.
By vetoing the entire budget -- rather than simply rejecting a few token line items -- and calling the Legislature back into session to craft a better state spending plan, the governor can help prevent the hardship that this budget will bring to thousands of Floridians," said state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
In a statement, the governor's office said the Legislature's budget "accomplishes Governor Scotts goals of reducing the size, scope and cost of government and returns money back to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts. But Governor Scott has been looking carefully at the budget, line by line, and is making decisions that will continue to meet his goals and bring additional savings to the state."
Contact Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.