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Orlando Sentinel

Editorial: Don’t let political revenge dictate budget vetoes

Dissent is essential to democracy.

Punishing dissent is essential to the Ron DeSantis brand.

Just ask Disney, which faces the loss of the special district that allowed it to tax itself for municipal services. Ask state university faculty members who face tenure challenges. Or ask school board members in 12 counties including Orange and Brevard and elsewhere, who faced threats and retaliation for insisting on protecting students with COVID-19 mask mandates.

When he’s challenged, DeSantis lashes out. That’s what bullies do.

That’s what makes the governor’s use of line-item veto power in the new budget worth watching.

The Florida Legislature will soon send DeSantis a budget of $112.1 billion. That’s by far the largest in state history and represents a spending increase of about 20% in the past two years alone. The budget for fiscal 2020-2021 was $92.2 billion. So much for fiscal conservatism among the ruling Republicans in Tallahassee.

All those billions

With an irresistible federal windfall of billions from President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, state lawmakers went on a spending spree with our money as never before. They still had enough left over to give lavish tax breaks to the state’s largest and wealthiest corporations and to sock away $8 billion in reserves.

On a positive note, state workers will get 5.4% pay raises, every state worker will earn at least $15 an hour, and teachers and first responders will get special pay raises. But legislators couldn’t find enough money for more than one month of gas tax relief for cash-strapped motorists, and they stubbornly refused again to expand Medicaid to help the uninsured.

The budget headed to DeSantis’ desk is stuffed with a record number of projects tailored to individual lawmakers’ districts — more than 1,200 projects in all worth $2.8 billion, according to the annual report on budget “turkeys” by Florida TaxWatch. That’s about twice as many member projects as are in the current budget, and as much as all total projects in the past five budgets combined, TaxWatch found.

The new budget includes a $106 million research park in Pasco County, the home of Senate President Wilton Simpson, and a $35 million sports complex in Pasco reported to be a future spring training home for the Tampa Bay Rays.

Other projects are of the brick-and-mortar variety, like a new $3.5 million police station in South Miami, or for an array of worthy human services such as $1 million for health care access for veterans at clinics run by Broward’s Nova Southeastern University.

The Nova project appears to be politically secure because its sponsor was Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who was just chosen by DeSantis as Florida’s new commissioner of education.

A chance to get even

Every project has a legislator’s name attached to it, and scores of other projects subject to the line-item veto are championed by Democratic lawmakers who also voted against his priorities, like a 15-week abortion ban, the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, a new elections police force, a pathway to censorship of textbooks and library books and a racially gerrymandered congressional redistricting map that eliminates two Black access districts.

The line-item veto is DeSantis’ weapon to get even with those Democratic dissenters by punishing them and their constituents in their pocketbooks.

But DeSantis won’t have much opportunity to vent his wrath on Orange County, which is almost entirely represented by Democrats. That showed up starkly in the scant handful of member projects its delegation managed to win.

Do you think that’s fair? Consider this: Orange County is second only to Miami-Dade County in the amount of sales-tax revenue it collects. It sent nearly $307 million to Tallahassee in March alone. On the simple grounds of economic justice, the county deserved far more than it was allocated.

Yet there’s concern that local projects will be targeted. Several Democratic lawmakers, outraged over the congressional map, staged a sit-in in the House on April 21 that briefly delayed floor votes. Among the protesters: Representatives Tray McCurdy, Anna Eskamani, Carlos Guillermo-Smith and Daisy Morales, each of whom represents part of Orange County. Of the four, only one — Morales ― managed to get any member projects in the budget. If either of her appropriations is vetoed, will anyone wonder why?

According to a detailed House staff spreadsheet provided to the Sun Sentinel, the overwhelming majority of member projects were sponsored by Republicans, with $457 million out of $483 million, or an astounding 95% of the House total.

That level of imbalance is wrong in a House chamber where more than a third of Florida’s population lives in districts represented by Democrats ― and where each district includes roughly the same number of Floridians. But it’s not surprising in this era of hyper-partisan, top-down Tallahassee governance.

To be sure, there’s waste in this budget. DeSantis has a duty to remove it, especially projects that escaped careful review or were inserted by a single powerful lawmaker.

But every one of his line-item rejects should be justified by sound policy, not politics. Dissent is essential in a democracy, especially with this governor.

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The Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board includes Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson, Opinion Editor Krys Fluker, Viewpoints Editor Jay Reddick and El Sentinel Editor Jennifer Marcial Ocasio. The Sun Sentinel Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Steve Bousquet, Deputy Editorial Page Editor Dan Sweeney and Anderson. To contact us, email insight@orlando sentinel.com.