TALLAHASSEE -- As Gov. Rick Scott boldly predicted he would keep a campaign promise to cut taxes, both top legislative leaders Wednesday expressed doubt because of the size of the state’s budget shortfall.
Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon appeared separately at a session for editors and reporters sponsored by the Associated Press. The three Republicans’ divergent views on taxing and spending underscored the reality that Scott, the political outsider in the governor’s office, may not be able to move his agenda as easily as he might expect.
“I’m going to put out a budget that shows them how to do it,” said Scott, who will present his first budget recommendations on Feb. 4.
He offered no new details but has advocated merging agencies, eliminating programs and requiring state workers to pay part of their retirement benefits.
Cannon said cutting taxes in the face of a huge shortfall would be “very difficult,” and wants to see how Scott’s budget proposals can make it happen.
“Whether it’s possible to reduce them (taxes), the governor’s indicated he’s got a plan for that, and I’m eager to see that,” Cannon said. He called cutting taxes “a big challenge.”
Haridopolos said his top priority is cutting spending to erase a $3.6 billion shortfall.
“First things first,” he said. “Once we make those cuts, which are going to be very, very difficult, then we’re going to look at tax relief.”
The Senate leader, a U.S. Senate candidate in 2012, said the deepest cuts would be in education, health care and the prison system. The Medicaid program alone absorbs nearly one-third of the $70.4 billion budget.
Haridopolos said requiring state employees to contribute to their own pensions is a step that is long overdue.
“State employees do good work, but when one of eight Floridians is out of work, we need to be sensitive to that,” he said.
Scott promised as a candidate to reduce property taxes collected for schools by 19 percent and cut the corporate income tax rate from 5.5 percent to 3 percent in his first year.
He received support Wednesday for cutting property taxes from a surprising source: Democratic Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West, the House minority leader. He said lawmakers should consider using state revenues such as sales taxes to offset a cut in property taxes, which he said pays for 90 percent of the public school budget in the Keys.
Saunders said taxes based on property values are particularly unfair in the Keys, where high-end construction has a big impact. Someone’s property taxes shouldn’t go up “because Calvin Klein moved in next door,” he said.
Scott called the current state budget “bloated” and said he’ll be more careful with tax dollars, an indirect slap at his fellow Republicans who crafted it.
“I believe our existing budget is bloated,” Scott said, declining to cite one example of wasteful spending. “I believe that we’re not cautious enough about how we spend money.”
In an apparent reference to lobbyists, he added without elaboration that “a lot of people have made money off the government.”
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who as Senate president for the past two years played a key role in the budget, took issue with Scott’s remarks about a “bloated” budget.
“I am proud of the budgets we created,” Atwater said. “They were difficult choices to make.”
Scott’s half-hour talk, with about 15 minutes of questions, was his longest press conference as governor. So far, he has not been as accessible to the news media as his predecessors.
“My wife thinks I talk to you guys more than I talk to her, and she really does think that way right now,” Scott said.
He said being governor is easier than being CEO of a large private company, and the biggest complaint he hears from companies seeking to do business in Florida is that it takes too long to get permits and bureaucratic decisions.
And he explained why he won’t read newspapers or watch TV newscasts: “If I read what everybody writes every day, then I’ll try to pacify everybody so you guys will only write positive things about me. I realize that’s not your job.”
Scott said he anticipates a backlash over his budget proposals.