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Florida governor signs budget, but vetoes college tuition hike

Florida Governor Rick Scott greets an attendee in the audience before the start of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida
Florida Governor Rick Scott greets an attendee in the audience before the start of the final U.S. presidential debate in Boca Raton, Florida

By Bill Cotterell

TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - Florida Governor Rick Scott signed the largest budget in his state's history on Monday while vetoing a college tuition increase and axing $368 million in projects he said did not meet his Republican criteria of job creation, education improvement and holding down the cost of government.

Scott, who had a tough time selling some of his economic priorities in the Republican-led legislative session that ended May 3, used his line-item veto to delete a 3 percent tuition hike. The increase was a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford, a fellow Republican who had personally thwarted the governor's plan to expand Medicaid during the session.

At a news conference before leaving on a trade mission to Chile, Scott said he was not punishing the presiding officers with his vetoes in the $74.1 billion budget.

But some of Scott's vetoes appeared to be made with an eye toward his re-election in 2014. He allowed $1 million for a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami but vetoed $500,000 for Broward County's Holocaust Documentation and Education Center and axed $1 million earmarked for the Black Cultural Tourism Enhancement Commission.

Cuban-Americans tend to vote Republican in the Miami area, while blacks and Jewish voters mainly support Democrats.

"It's really tough to make these decisions," Scott said, when asked about the vetoes. "I look at every project and say, 'Will it help create more jobs? Will it improve our education system? Will it keep the cost of government low?'"

Scott's opposition to the tuition increase was expected and could still be challenged in court.

Scott also vetoed $50 million for a cross-state bicycle trail, saying it was nice but not vital for improving education and the economy.

The budget contains $480 million for teacher pay raises of $2,500 for good-performing teachers and $3,500 for those rated superior. State employees will get their first general raises in six years, $1,400 for those making less than $40,000 and $1,000 for others.

Weatherford praised Scott's budget decisions. "While we did not agree on every line item, he signed 95 percent of our budget, which is a resounding endorsement of the House and Senate work product," the speaker said.

Other Republicans praised Scott for signing a budget that did not raise taxes while increasing the salaries of state workers and teachers.

There was also $70 million for Everglades restoration.

"This is the most important environmental and economic restoration project in the world," said Eric Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. "Our foundation is grateful to be part of protecting and preserving this very special ecosystem that Florida families and our growing population can rely on for years to come, as a clean-water source and natural wonder."

Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, a Democrat, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the governor's line-item vetoes.

"His targets reveal a basic misunderstanding of the critical role local communities, and local community projects, play in Florida," said Smith.

(Editing by David Adams and Dan Grebler)

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