By Jim Turner and Ryan Dailey, The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis trimmed $510.9 million from a record-high state spending plan signed Thursday, with nearly one-fifth of the cuts coming from a single program designed to keep swaths of rural property from commercial and residential development.
While DeSantis didn’t give any explanation for projects he slashed for the fiscal year that begins July 1, the governor’s line-item vetoes put the state budget at roughly $116.5 billion, a 6 percent increase from the current year’s spending plan.
DeSantis, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, used a budget signing event at the Pelican Yacht Club in Fort Pierce Thursday morning to contrast Florida’s fiscal approach to that of President Joe Biden and large states led by Democrats.
Florida “is in great shape. The state’s going in a great direction. You’re not going to see us have the type of problems that these other states have with fiscal insolvency, driving people away,” DeSantis said. “I mean our tax base is expanding, business investments (are) terrific. And of course, this budget is in fantastic shape.”
DeSantis made no mention of his budget vetoes during Thursday’s event, a contrast to his remarks a year ago when he stood on a stage in The Villages flanked by Republican legislative leaders whose projects were targeted for cuts.
The governor’s office released the budget vetoes hours after the Fort Pierce event ended.
DeSantis used the morning appearance to focus on “record” environmental spending, pay increases for state law enforcement officers and teachers, $4 billion to speed construction on road projects, and a third year of $1,000 bonuses for law enforcement officers and firefighters throughout the state.
“We are able to do things that make a difference in people’s lives, not by wasting money, but by spending it on things that really have a great impact on the general public,” DeSantis said.
The governor’s office labeled the spending package (SB 2500), along with accompanying conforming bills (SB 2502, SB 2504, SB 2506 and SB 2510), the “Framework to Freedom.”
The largest item nixed from the 515-page budget was $100 million for Conservation And Rural Land Protection easements, a program championed by Agriculture Commissioner Wilton Simpson.
Created in 2001, the program involves purchasing conservation easements, which allow landowners to continue farming and cattle operations in exchange for not developing the property.
Simpson has linked the program to protecting food production. His office recently encouraged farmers and ranchers to apply for the state funding, which continues to be distributed through $300 million received for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.
Simpson, a former Senate president, blasted DeSantis’ decision to nix this year’s funding for the program, saying it would harm the state’s $180 billion agriculture industry.
“There is no conceivable reason to target agriculture in a year when we have billions of dollars in reserves,” Simpson, a Republican, said in a statement. “Agriculture was harmed today and so was the state of Florida.”
The next highest cut was to a $30.8 million proposal sponsored by Sen. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, to acquire the Kirkland Ranch in Pasco County.
The governor also slashed more than $150 million in proposed education-related funding from the annual spending plan. The vetoes included proposed expenditures such as a pay raise for teachers working in juvenile-justice education programs and big-ticket construction projects at state colleges and universities.
For example, DeSantis nixed a $2.1 million proposal to boost salaries for full-time classroom teachers employed by a juvenile-justice education program or school.
University projects targeted by DeSantis’ included a proposed $14.5 million renovation to Florida Gulf Coast University’s Reed Hall classroom building and the construction of a new $11 million Academic and Research Collaboration Center at the University of Florida, sought by Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville.
DeSantis also denied a $20 million spending request by Sen. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, to construct an Academic STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Nursing Facility at the University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee Campus.
The governor’s education cuts also slashed $6.4 million for building upgrades at public broadcasting stations across the state designed to “correct health and safety issues” and “building deficiencies,” according to the budget item.
The budget signed by DeSantis included $850 million for the Florida Wildlife Corridor and $100 million in recurring funding for the Florida Forever land protection program.
DeSantis’ action Thursday drew mixed reviews from Democrats.
Praising the budget, Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando, highlighted spending such items as the environment and roughly $29.9 million for various projects and organizations in her central Florida district.
“These projects will have large positive impacts directly in Central Florida, and provide many needed services, create job opportunities, and continue to make our community a safe place to call home,” Stewart said in a release.
But House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said DeSantis’ budget decisions would harm Floridians.
“This budget was written and passed unanimously by the Florida Legislature, and while no budget is ever perfect, this one did a lot of good for the people of Florida,” Driskell said in a release. “Unfortunately, DeSantis cut half a billion dollars from projects to keep Floridians healthy, protect us from storms, and improve our schools and roads.”
Meanwhile, Orlando Democratic Rep. Rita Harris called the vetoes “irresponsible” and “harmful.”
“I am frustrated that millions of dollars will not be distributed to help the local community, including funding that would have supported local food drives, not only in Orlando but throughout the entire state of Florida,” Harris said in a release.
Harris pointed to $400,000 vetoed for the annual Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive conducted by U.S. Postal carriers.
The funding would have gone to Simpson’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Report to purchase bags for the drive.
In a press release issued by DeSantis’ office Thursday, the governor attributed the vetoes to the need to “maintain Florida’s sound fiscal standing in the face of continued economic headwinds due to ill-conceived federal policies.”
DeSantis last year axed $3.13 billion from the current fiscal-year budget, which put the package at $109.9 billion. At the time, DeSantis said the cuts were a brace against a potential recession.
Republican leaders have linked the growth in the budget to inflation, the state’s growing economy and population increases. The budget is also tied to separate tax relief measures carrying an overall $2.7 billion price tag.