Gov. Rick Scott's positive spin on his 2016-2017 state budget blueprint begins with the misleading title, "Florida First." The appellation would be far more accurate with another word inserted in the middle: "Florida Business First." His proposal underserves individuals and families once again after years of ignoring pressing needs in law enforcement, mental health, children's welfare and indigent health care, just to name a few issues that the governor continues to slight.
The governor's $79.3 billion spending proposal tilts heavily toward business. Scott wants a permanent elimination of income taxes on manufacturing and retail businesses; tax cuts on commercial leases over two years; and an end to sales taxes on manufacturing equipment. Just those cuts would total more than $1 billion.
Plus, Scott proposes adding another $250 million for economic development incentives, mostly spent on job poaching from other states. But the state already holds a hefty balance from past appropriations -- with almost all of the $264 million allocated since 2011 unspent or returned. Senate Republicans question why Enterprise Florida needs even more cash, and one Democratic leader derided the idea as "corporate welfare."
On public schools, the governor boasts about a record level of per-pupil spending, but he casually ignores the fact that local property owners will pay 85 percent of his $507 million budget increase. Worse, the state's contribution to public schools would actually drop by almost 2 percent while the required local effort would rise by more than 2 percent to over 45 percent, a clear cost shift that is prompting misgivings from Republican legislative leaders.
For the fifth consecutive year, Scott seeks major job cuts at several key state agencies -- 718 jobs in the Department of Health and 152 in the Department of Environmental Protection. The governor wants to ax more than 500 jobs in county health departments, whose mission is to serve low-income people across the state.
Scott is also targeting indigent health care on two other fronts, by eliminating an automatic increase in Medicaid payments to hospitals and by not proposing the state fill a $400 million hole under the federal-state low-income pool program of payments to hospitals.
The Legislature did cover that gap this year. Today, Scott implies that hospitals can absorb the loss because of "record profits." We expect a dogfight over health care in the coming session.
For the eighth consecutive year, state employees will not receive across-the-board pay increases under Scott's plan. Lawmakers counter that position by citing simple facts -- skilled government workers are leaving for better pay elsewhere and less experienced employees are filling the gap on vital government work. This short-sighted position creates a weaker workforce.
Scott also aims to raid dedicated trust funds to the tune of $238 million, shifting money earmarked for specific purposes over to his priorities. This is a recurring problem in Tallahassee, and the Legislature should halt the practice now that the state's economy is on the mend.
On environmental spending, the governor fails to fully fund the land purchases and conservation efforts under the voter-approved Amendment 1. He also exaggerates the projected state budget surplus, putting the figure at $1.3 billion while state economists foresee $635 million after essential services are covered.
The governor's budget proposal is only a starting point, and the House and Senate will likely once again come up with different priorities. Senate President Andy Gardiner already indicated he'll only support $250 million in tax cuts and the restoration of budget reductions in assorted programs. The state needs a truly broad-based "Florida First" budget, not a "Florida Business First."