$1.4B Scott budget proposal offers opportunities, pitfalls

Times/Herald Tallahassee BureauJanuary 28, 2014 

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Florida Gov. Rick Scott speaks at the dedication of Air Products' new manufacturing facility in north Manatee County. The company manufactures natural gas heat exchangers used to liquefy natural gas for transport. GRANT JEFFERIES/Bradenton Herald

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TAMPA — For Florida Gov. Rick Scott, it’s more than a budget. It’s his blueprint for a re-election campaign.

Scott will submit budget proposals Wednesday to the Legislature for the fiscal year that begins July 1. With a projected revenue boost of $846 million, Scott wants to spend more on popular programs while also offering tax and fee cuts.

He has been hitting the road, promoting his ideas in public as never before, while his staff privately seeks buy-in from key legislators.

“I like what I see so far,” said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. “But what we don’t know yet is what the entire budget picture looks like from a revenue or expense standpoint. We don’t know what might have to give for some of these very good initiatives to get funding.”

Scott’s plan comes with its own campaign-style name: “It’s Your Money Tax Cut Budget.”

He wants $500 million in tax and fee cuts and $542 million more for public education, $130 million for the Everglades and water protection and $55 million to protect springs, a back-to-school sales tax holiday that will save taxpayers an estimated $60 million and $31 million more to protect children from abuse and neglect.

The total: $1.4 billion or nearly twice as much as the revenue surplus, which means Scott must cut elsewhere to balance his budget, and some of those cuts could be politically troublesome.

Scott was not ready to discuss those plans Tuesday. He has asked his agencies to recommend cuts totaling $100 million, but brushed aside a question of where he wants reductions.

“We’re watching how we spend your money,” Scott said. “But look, our budget is tied to sales tax growth and property taxes, and guess what’s happening? Properties are going up in value.”

Scott visited the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa to highlight an $80 million budget request for cancer research. Most of that money, $60 million, would help hospitals and universities obtain a prestigious designation from the National Cancer Institute. Moffitt already enjoys that designation, but others, including a University of Florida and Orlando Health partnership, also want to win that recognition, which goes to world-class programs in multidisciplinary cancer research and clinical care.

In an election year, Scott’s fellow Republicans in the Legislature are likely to be more accommodating than in the past. But in some areas, his spending plan already faces skepticism in the House.

The lead House budget-writer, state Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, says Scott’s call for nearly $200 million in Everglades and water-related spending is a tough sell.

“That’s huge, from our perspective,” McKeel said. “That’s going to be a tough one.”

The budget surplus won’t last long, for other reasons. Medicaid enrollment is growing, the prison population is on the rise and the state is on the hook for $51 million more in increases in benefits for workers.

Scott’s No. 1 priority is a partial repeal of unpopular car and truck registration fees approved five years ago to patch a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall.

A typical motorist would save $25 from Scott’s proposal, which would take $400 million from the state treasury. Another $100 million tax cut would come from eliminating one-half of 1 cent of a 6 percent statewide sales tax businesses pay on rents.

Those two pocketbook proposals are why Scott can’t also pitch a proposed $1 billion increase in school spending as he has in each of the past two years. In a pivotal election year, fee cuts are just as important as education, and a $60 million back-to-school sales tax holiday represents twice as big a savings as his $31 million child protection initiative. “Tax relief is the right call,” McKeel said. “It’s definitely time to give taxpayers a break.”

In the coming months, the Legislature will write its own budget, accepting some of Scott’s ideas, ignoring others and substituting their own for Scott’s as they have for the past three years. Last year, lawmakers reworked Scott’s request for a $2,500 raise for every teacher, and the result amounted to a lot less for most.

Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, will propose a five-point plan of shared priorities, including hefty spending increases in career and professional education to train students for technical jobs.

“We intend to double down, going forward,” Gaetz said.

Scott has been paying regular visits to the state’s largest media markets to promote his budget ideas. In Tampa and Orlando, he called attention Tuesday to proposals to spend more for cancer research and to offer a small cut in the sales tax that businesses pay for rent. He visited a lumber store Monday in Miami to tout a sales tax break on hurricane supplies such as first-aid kits and radios.

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