Now that the sun has set on the 2023 session, many watchful eyes have turned to the desk of Governor Ron DeSantis, where his ominous veto pen is on a direct collision course with a record-setting state budget bloated with special projects that are ripe for the plucking. Many lobbyists across the Sunshine State are nervously waiting and watching to see if the cash they managed to wrangle through the legislative process and tuck in there will survive the governor’s annual purge.
Over his first four years in office, DeSantis slung more red veto ink than any governor in Florida history, easily qualifying himself as the new “Veto Corleone” in Tallahassee, whether that’s measured as the total amount of vetos or a percentage of the budget. Since assuming office, DeSantis has earned a reputation for his fiscal conservatism, slashing wasteful spending like Vito Corleone slashed the Barzini crime family in the movie The Godfather.
But as with any political thriller, there’s always an air of intrigue surrounding the motivation behind a Florida governor’s line-item veto choices – which are driven by a complex formula that includes the current economic climate, the governor’s personal political and policy views, his relationships with both the legislature as a whole and individual lawmakers who might be targets for political revenge, combined with a range of other local political calculations that are impossible to quantify.
In Florida’s modern political history, Republican governors have relished the opportunity to brandish their veto pens. Jeb Bush, who earned the title the “Godfather of Florida Fiscal Conservatism,” set the stage during his two terms by accumulating $2 billion in vetoes over his eight years in office, back when state budgets were half the size they are now.
“Governor Bush was a champion of limited government, and he relished the opportunity to use the line item veto to slash wasteful spending,” said Cory Tilley, who served as communications director for Bush during his first years in office. “It helped him send a strong message to the legislature early in his administration that cutting back on the size and scope of state government was a priority.”
Bush later set a single-year record of $449 million in 2006, when he became the first Florida governor to earn the nickname “Veto Corleone.” By all accounts, when it came to the state budget, Bush always made it clear that he meant business.
Even Charlie Crist, who followed in Bush’s footsteps, defied predictions of a kindler, gentler approach by surpassing Bush’s single-year record, slashing $459 million in 2007. Not to be outdone, Rick Scott crashed the veto party in 2011, cutting what was, at the time, a jaw-dropping $615 million in vetoes on a much smaller Great Recession-era budget of under $70 billion. Scott’s veto reign over eight years totaled a hefty $2.4 billion, showcasing his dedication to fiscal restraint could rival that of Jeb Bush.
But all of those figures pale in comparison to DeSantis’s running total of $5.6 billion vetoed so far, which doesn’t include whatever fat he’s about to trim from this year’s budget. And yes, there’s plenty of fat. In fact, Florida TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro sees a lot of opportunities for DeSantis to make his mark.
“This budget includes funding for more than 1,500 member projects, the largest quantity in history,” Collabro said in an email sent last week, recommending that DeSantis “apply special scrutiny to all projects on these lists as he considers using his line-item veto power.”
It wasn’t always that way. In his first year as governor, DeSantis exhibited an extremely light touch, vetoing a modest $131 million on a $91.1 billion budget. However, as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc in 2020, DeSantis unleashed his full veto power, slashing over $1 billion from a $92.2 billion budget. In 2021, DeSantis dialed up the veto heat even further, inking-out a colossal $1.5 billion from a $101.5 billion spending plan, capturing the attention of both supporters and critics alike. But last year, DeSantis appears to have sent a staffer to make a special run to Staples to buy extra red Sharpies, which he used to eliminate 400 individual line items totalling $3.1 billion, cementing his title as Florida’s ultimate “Veto Corleone.”
Now, the table is set for the next act: a record-breaking $117 billion budget, a mouth-watering 1,500 member projects, all set against the backdrop of a likely national political campaign for the White House. Will DeSantis run up the score just to garner more national attention? Or will he rest on his previously established reputation? Having easily surpassed the veto totals of Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, DeSantis has nothing to prove in terms of fiscal conservatism, but few outside of Florida are aware of that reputation, which makes this year’s budget a prime political opportunity for DeSantis.
“Given the enormity of this budget, he will likely want a veto cycle that not only gains national press but puts down a clear marker that he is not just a culture conservative but a fiscal one as well,” said public relations pro Steven Vancore, President of VancoreJones Communications. “I would predict north of $3 billion.”
Vancore isn’t alone in that sentiment.
“With a national campaign on the horizon, Governor Desantis has another opportunity to bolster his fiscally conservative credentials,” says Tilley, who founded his own PR firm, CoreMessage, after leaving Bush’s office. “Aggressively using the line item veto to protect the taxpayers money is a no brainer. I expect a long veto list will be coming.“
However, the line-item veto can be a double-edged sword. While it allows DeSantis to make bold statements and generate headlines, it also invites criticism from those who see the cuts as detrimental to local projects and initiatives. Left-leaning media outlets will be particularly quick to frame overzealous vetoes as heartless “cuts” that harm specific communities and constituencies.
But ultimately, DeSantis isn’t likely to care how the national legacy media frames the narrative. His most immediate concern, outside of Florida, is to win the GOP primary, and those voters aren’t swayed by progressive reporters that lead their stories with heartbreaking anecdotes about cruel Republican budget cuts. More likely, the calculus for DeSantis will come down to how the cuts will play among rank-and-file voters across the country.