State budget on collision course with DeSantis veto pen
This time of year, a favorite parlor game among Tallahassee insiders is speculating just how much the governor plans to slash from the spending plan approved by state lawmakers. Among the traditional factors that must be considered are the governor’s campaign promises, ideological leanings, policy priorities, previous veto history, favors owed and favors needed, general relationship with state lawmakers, and of course, days remaining until the next election.
With the 2022 Legislative Session finally over, many in Tallahassee are wondering just how much Governor Ron DeSantis plans to slash from a record $112.1 billion budget, and more than a few lobbyists and lawmakers are nervously awaiting the veto ax.
Historically, modern governors have been somewhat unpredictable with how they wield their red Sharpies. Since 1998, Florida’s governor’s mansion has been occupied by Republicans, who typically campaign for fiscal responsibility and against wasteful spending. That automatically makes the line-item veto one of the most potent political weapons in any governor’s arsenal – not just because it can create leverage with state lawmakers, but also because it can easily generate headlines that help build the governor’s reputation as a budget-conscious steward of the public’s money.
The flip side of that, however, is that most of the state’s left-leaning legacy newspapers tend to frame overzealous vetoes as “cuts” to local projects, rather than taxpayer-funded largesse.
The Godfather of Florida Fiscal Conservatism
One man who didn’t seem to mind the criticism: Jeb Bush. Over his two terms in Florida’s governor’s mansion, Bush earned the nickname “Veto Corleone,” a reference to Marlin Brando’s role in The Godfather as “Don Vito Corleone.” Over his two terms in office, Bush accumulated vetoes totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion, and set his single year line-item veto record at $449 million on a budget of $72 billion in 2006.
Just a year later, newspaper pundits predicted (incorrectly) that Charlie Crist, the new sheriff in town, would likely scale back on the veto-pen savagery. But Crist wasted no time in setting a new record, besting Bush by $10 million, slashing $459 million from a similarly sized budget in 2007.
By 2011, when Florida was in the midst of an economic decline and the budget had shrunk to just under $70 billion, new Governor Rick Scott used his patented red Sharpie pen to line through $615 million in vetoes. The amount crushed previous records in terms of both total dollars and percentage of the state budget.
All told, over Scott’s eight years in office, his line item vetoes totaled about $2.4 billion, certainly more than Jeb Bush’s grand total, but it’s worth noting that after Scott’s first year, those vetoes came on state budgets that grew steadily compared to the Bush era.
The New Veto Corleone?
Enter Ron DeSantis. In his first year as governor, he wielded a light touch, axing a mere $131 million on a budget $91.1 billion, easily less than half of one percent. By 2020, though, DeSantis was in the earliest days of a still-new coronavirus pandemic. The crisis effectively gave him a license to kill any line-item that looked even remotely frivolous, and he ended up lopping just over $1 billion off the state budget that weighed in at $92.2 billion when signed.
Last year, DeSantis took things even farther, whacking $1.5 billion from a $101.5 billion spending plan approved by state lawmakers. Those cuts were by far the deepest, 1.34 percent of all spending ended up on the chopping block.
So with a $112.1 billion budget that presents plenty of juicy veto targets, what will DeSantis do this year? In his first three years, he’s already surpassed the total veto amounts set by two-term governor’s Jeb Bush and Rick Scott, who accumulated their totals over eight years. In that sense, DeSantis has nothing to prove in terms of fiscal conservatism. But he may have some scores to settle with certain lawmakers and other power players in the state.
Just taking into account the sheer size and scope of this year’s budget and applying DeSantis’s previous veto history (0.92 percent) to that number yields a potential 2022 veto amount of $1.03 billion. Given the large amount of federal dollars baked into the budget this year, DeSantis could easily stun everyone with an eye-popping number when the veto list comes out, easily earning the right to call himself the new “Veto Corleone.”