For years, Pasco County has waited for native son Will Weatherford to ascend to speaker of the House and the expected windfall that would come with it.
But instead of reaping the rewards of leadership, Weatherford’s home county is reeling from a political smackdown by Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed six Pasco County budget items worth more than $6 million. That doesn’t include the $50 million Coast to Coast trail project, which would have included a link between Pasco’s Starkey Trail and the Pinellas Trail.
“It’s not a good day to be in Pasco County,” Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said. “We got hit pretty hard. Being a legislator for almost 20 years, my experience tells me it’s a message.”
Scott sparred with the Legislature over several key issues, ranging from expansion of Medicaid to college tuition hikes. Scott signed the state’s $74.1 billion budget Monday but vetoed $358 million – including the tuition hikes Weatherford favored.
“The governor wanted to help the uninsured of Florida and the House didn’t want to go along – and I think that had a lot to do with it,” Fasano said.
University of South Florida political scientist Susan MacManus said it was obvious from reading the veto list that Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz were singled out. “This is a case of the governor showing the leadership who’s boss,” MacManus said. “He doesn’t want to be seen as a rubber stamp.”
The Senate favored the Medicaid expansion, but Gaetz’s district was not spared. Scott vetoed nearly $30 million of projects in his Panhandle district. MacManus said Scott sent a message he was unhappy with the friction between the two chambers.
“It’s unrealistic to think leadership can simply plop an item into the budget and have it stick,” MacManus said. “Maybe in the past, when the money spigot was flowing, the leadership could get away with that and the governor would just wink and let it go. But those days are long gone.”
It wasn’t a total loss for Pasco County. Scott funded the final $6.9 million installment to complete the Pasco-Hernando Community College campus in Wiregrass Ranch. Weatherford also delivered on a $1.9 million water project to improve connections between Dade City and Zephyrhills. But Scott vetoed another $2.2 million for water system improvements in Dade City and Lacoochee.
“I am pleased that in this year’s budget, we were able to include projects that have a fiscally positive impact for Pasco County,” Weatherford said in a statement. “While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 99 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product.”
The budget maintained the $1 million in funding for the Pasco Sheriff Chris Nocco’s child protective investigations unit. But funding for the sheriff’s drug initiative ($1 million) and his efforts to take over probation services ($120,000) were both vetoed.
Nocco criticized the decision regarding probation services. “I would like to thank the legislators who supported the plan,” he said. “However, I feel that entrenched bureaucrats in Tallahassee wish to protect their turf at the expense of public safety.”
State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, called Scott’s decision to veto the sheriff’s drug initiative, which he funded last year, inconsistent. He said he was shocked by the level of cuts Pasco sustained. “I really thought we had the wind in our sails,” he said. “If it was petty politics just to get back at Speaker Weatherford, then he hurt 500,000 people to do that.”
Legg was especially disappointed in Scott’s decision to veto a $1.5 million STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Magnet Academy in Pasco that would have focused on industry certifications in high-skill and high-demand areas such as manufacturing and technology.
“You always expect the governor to veto some projects,” Legg said. “But with regard to the education funding, in particular, maybe he’s cutting his nose off to spite his face. I’m really disappointed.”
He said the STEM project “directly related to our economy and preparation of our workforce.”
Fasano said he was pleasantly surprised that two projects he sponsored survived Scott’s veto pen: $1 million to relieve flooding in Trinity and $36,000 for a summer camp program for children with disabilities. “Usually, when my name is attached to something, it’s the kiss of death,” Fasano said.
But he lamented Scott’s decision to veto funding for Metropolitan Ministries to assist homeless families with children. “I can’t understand how he can approve $5 million for a sailing regatta in Sarasota but vetoes $1.3 million for transitional housing for people in Pasco County who have lost their homes,” Fasano said. “I don’t know how you rationalize that.”
Pasco Commissioner Kathryn Starkey said that particular veto was surprising because the project has a great deal of support from the private sector. “I am very surprised about the homeless shelter,” Starkey said. “We have the second largest homeless population in the state, and that would have helped a lot of needy families. It was a small part of a much larger project that had a lot of private backing. I think it was short-sighted.”
Starkey, a gubernatorial appointee to the state’s Greenways and Trails Council, said she was disappointed - but not surprised - that Scott vetoed the Coast to Coast project. “I’m confident next year it will get approved,” she said.