TALLAHASSEE -- In secret talks, top legislators and Gov. Rick Scott hatched a $68-billion budget deal involving a rather simple trade: tax cuts for hometown spending.
So lawmakers Tuesday quickly agreed to spend, spend, spend about $156-million on their hometown districts in projects that fund county health departments, a regatta center, meals for seniors, college buildings, a botanical garden and veterans’ programs.
Still, there were big budget losers: Hospitals statewide will face a $510-million cut, or 12 percent, in Medicaid reimbursements. Public school funding is down by 8 percent or $540 per student. Everglades restoration money is just enough to keep re-plumbing the River of Grass, and thousands of state jobs are being eliminated.
Legislators focused on the positive: level funding for mental-health and substance-abuse treatment programs. The catastrophically sick in the Meds AD and Medically Needy programs won’t face cuts, either, and taxpayers will get a small property tax cut.
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“I can’t imagine a more difficult budget to work through,” Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said of the need to cut spending by $4-billion to cope with weak tax collections.
The full picture of the budget, all of the cuts and projects, won’t become clear until today, by which time the phone-book thick budget will be printed.
Through it all, Scott will get to sign a budget with tax cuts and business incentives that total about $308 million – one-eighth of the $2.4 billion he requested.
Scott said he negotiated with House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos over a new corporate-income tax exemption, and that the talks included saving some lawmakers’ hometown spending projects. “Everything has come up,” Scott said, but he wouldn’t offer examples. “I don’t think that’s in my best interest,” he said with a laugh.
Haridopolos initially declined to include a corporate tax cut in the budget. But, in discussions with Cannon and Scott, he agreed to remove the smallest corporate taxpayers, about 15,000, at a cost to the budget of about $37 million.
Florida families will get a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday and taxpayers will see a minuscule property tax break on their water management district bills, in a year in which the Legislature was forced to cut spending by nearly $4 billion due to the lingering recession.
Scott said he dropped a veto threat after lawmakers agreed to the tax-and-budget deal, saying it “meets my core principles.” The first-term Republican governor, who has paid special attention to Tea Party fiscal conservatives, is expected to veto some spending.
He said he’ll decide which spending projects to veto based on a simple question: “Is it going to get our economy going?”
That’s in the eye of the beholder. Alexander, the Senate budget chief, steered $46 million to a University of South Florida polytechnic school in Lakeland, a hometown project he has championed for years. Alexander said the state has already spent about $200 million to build the school and he still speaks with bitterness about former Gov. Charlie Crist issuing a “punitive and politically motivated” veto of the project last year.
Higher education is a favorite target for hometown spending. Future House Speaker Will Weatherford will get $6.9 million more for classrooms and services at Pasco-Hernando Community College in his hometown of Wesley Chapel.
Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, who has sought to work collaboratively with Republicans, is one of the few Democrats to get money in the budget. He helped secure $250,000 for addictions research at USF.
A former drug addict, Rouson also was an influential voice who spoke against cutting substance-abuse treatment. “If you cut that,” he said, “it ruins the entire fabric of communities.”
Other new budget projects include $6 million in economic aid to the Panhandle, on top of $10 million for advertising in the wake of the oil spill that future Senate President Don Gaetz of Niceville wrote into the budget. A world-class International Regatta Sports Center in Sarasota will get $5 million. The Orlando neighborhood of Eatonville received $100,000, and the Pine Hills neighborhood, $3.4 million. Some projects got relatively small chunks of budget change, such as $25,000 for the Thelma Gibson Health Initiative in Coconut Grove or $10,000 for Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami.
State workers have little to cheer in the budget. For the fifth year in a row, rank-and-file employees workers will receive no pay increases and will lose 3 percent of their salaries as they are required to contribute to their pensions for the first time.
Legislators agreed to sock away about $2.2 billion in cash reserves for emergencies and to preserve the state’s bond rating. Library advocates were smiling after lawmakers agreed to budget $21.3 million in library grants.
The Legislature decided to cut the Office of Adoption in the governor’s office, a program begun by Crist. The specter of another former governor, Jeb Bush, loomed over the budget talks as legislators decided to boost Bush’s school-recognition program by $119 million, representing a 7.9 percent cut.
Lawmakers also added $5 million more for low-performing schools, $10 million more for the Everglades, $7.7 million for senior meals, $15 million to rehab National Guard armories as well as nearly $3.3 million for the Wounded Warriors veterans’ program.
Many of the projects popped up after private talks that stretched till 4 a.m. Tuesday. Some were designed to buy support or reward favored lawmakers and their favored constituents.