Friday, November 24, 2017
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  • From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Gov. Scott pitches $87.4 billion election-year budget for Florida

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Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday called for a record-high state budget of $87.4 billion for next year, an election year that offers him one last chance to recast spending priorities before leaving office.

It is by far the largest budget Scott has proposed since the Republican governor took office seven years ago, and it’s a far cry from his initial budget that tried to slash classroom spending by 10 percent. His proposal is certain to undergo major change when the annual legislative session begins Jan. 9.

“I’m going to fight every day for Florida families,” Scott said at a budget announcement at Northern Tool in Jacksonville, surrounded by blue-collar workers and first responders. “We cannot stop now. We have to have another good budget.”

Entering his last year in office and coveting a seat in the U.S. Senate, Scott has whipped up a spending plan that has a little something for everyone: $220 million money for environmental programs, $53 million to combat the opioid epidemic, $4,000 pay raises for starting state troopers, cuts in driver’s license fees, and $50 million more for improvements to state parks, which he called a record.

If Scott has his way, state workers won’t get raises, but their health insurance premiums would stay the same and state college and university tuition would stay frozen at their current levels.

For the first time since Scott took office, the state work force would expand, with a net gain of 565 full-time positions, nearly all of them in the prison system, another shift in focus for a governor who has long prided himself on reducing the size of the bureaucracy.

Scott’s $180 million package of tax cuts is the smallest of his tenure. He will leave office without keeping a pledge from his first campaign in 2010, to eliminate the corporate income tax.

Florida TaxWatch, a group backed largely by businesses across the state, said Scott should have sought more tax cuts, including reducing the sales tax on corporate rents, the only state tax of its kind in the country.

Scott called it the “Securing Florida’s Future” budget.

Critics dismissed it as a blueprint designed to secure Scott’s political future.

The two-term Republican governor can’t run again because of term limits, and he’s widely expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who was elected in 2000. Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work, listed $1.5 million cash on hand as of Oct. 31.

The Florida Democratic Party said Scott’s “self-serving” budget can’t compensate for the past seven years of shortchanging education, the environment, health care and law enforcement.

“He can’t run away from seven years of budgets that have left hardworking Floridians worse off than when he took office,” Democrats said.

Democrats also seized on data -- cited by the pro-Scott Florida Chamber of Commerce -- showing that many of Florida’s smallest rural counties are worse off economically today than before the Great Recession hit in 2008 and 2009.

“The rural areas are constantly seeing a decline,” Antonio Jefferson, city manager of rural Gretna, told a Senate committee Monday, noting that even rural counties’ school enrollment is eroding.

Scott wants the Legislature to boost public school spending by $200 a student, but he again invited a philosophical clash with the House by paying for it through higher property tax payments by homeowners and businesses.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, calls that a tax increase, and he gave it an unqualified “Hell no” in the 2017 session.

Scott disagrees.

He noted that the local property tax rate that helps pay for schools remains unchanged under his proposal.

“When property values rise, it’s a good thing for Florida families,” the governor’s office said.

Citing “record” state tax revenues, Scott built his budget on a rosy assessment of Florida’s finances that stands in stark contrast to the one presented by the Legislature’s top economist.

“A looming problem remains,” economist Amy Baker writes in the current version of the state’s long-range financial outlook, noting that the costs of state programs paid for with recurring revenue, mostly from the 6 percent statewide sales tax, exceed the amount of projected money available for 2020 and 2021 to pay for the state’s critical and high priority needs.

“This indicates that a structural imbalance is occurring,” Baker noted.

Baker has warned legislators that the costs of Hurricane Irma will place additional strain on the state’s finances.

Her outlook noted that the Legislature has made the state’s fiscal picture more complicated by “sweeping” or transferring more than $456 million from a variety of trust funds to the state’s current budget.

Revenue experts also have lowered the expected rate of return in the state pension fund next year.

The reduction from 7.6 to 7.5 percent will require an additional $124 million from the Legislature next year to keep the fund fiscally sound.

Scott’s proposal did not include that $124 million.

The size of Florida’s budget has grown larger in each of Scott’s seven years in office, even as the state government work force has shrunk. In 2011, Scott’s first year in office, the budget totaled $69.7 billion. The budget Scott signed last June was $82.4 billion.

“The governor’s budget is a recommendation,” said Rep. Holly Raschein, R-Key Largo. “It’s a jumping-off spot.”

Scott is seeking to more than triple the budget of the hurricane preparedness agency, from $400 million to $1.4 billion.

His budget also includes more than $130 million for affordable and workforce housing, including $20 million alone for the Florida Keys, and a separate $100 million for a new targeted program to address the housing needs as a direct result of Hurricane Irma.

BUDGET HIGHLIGHTS

Highlights of Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed state budget:

* A $200 increase per-pupil in K-12, paid for largely by growth in property tax revenues

* Tax/fee cuts of $180 million, including 10-day back-to-school tax holiday and cuts in driver’s license fees

* Pay raises of $4,000 for new Highway Patrol troopers

* Net increase in state workforce of 565 jobs, mostly in prisons

* No across-the-board pay raises for state workers

* No change to state workers’ health premiums


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