EUSTIS — At a highly partisan tea party event, Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his first budget proposal that makes good on his promises to slash the size and spending of government.
Scott proposed spending almost $66 billion — $4.6 billion less next budget year compared to this year. Scott also wants to eliminate nearly 8,700 state positions, many of them filled by current state workers.
Though cutting those state jobs would add to the state's unemployment rate, Scott indicated that the best way to grow the state's economy was through his "jobs budget," which shrinks state government and cuts nearly $1.4 billion in property and corporate income taxes.
"As long as 1.1 million Floridians are out of work, we can't afford a government that runs wild with taxes, regulations and excessive spending," Scott told the enthusiastic crowd of a thousand conservative activists.
"Reviewing a governmental budget is much like going through the attic in an old home. You come across some priceless things you need to protect," Scott said. "But there are a lot of odd things someone once thought we needed. Much of it we've outgrown. And it just doesn't fit anymore. Over the last month, I've spent a lot of time in that attic. And I'm cleaning it out."
But critics say he's burning down the house.
State Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, noted the big cuts to education: $3.3 billion to $4.8 billion, depending on which section of the budget is included. She said that would hurt the state's kids and the state's business climate.
"The No. 1 question businesses ask when they come here is how is the education system," Sobel said. "If you're cutting money at that level, you're not going to attract the kind of businesses that we want to have."
Scott is reducing per-pupil spending by 10 percent. But school boards say the governor's office has informed them that since he's proposing to reduce taxpayer-backed pension costs, school boards can use the savings to boost spending.
Overall, Scott is proposing a modest increase in health care spending — $690 million— but it's unclear whether that would represent a reduction in the Medicaid program, which is growing faster than state tax collections.
Scott isn't shrinking all government services, though. He's increasing the small size of the staff of the Executive Office of the Governor, for instance.
The budget rollout, which previous governors have done in the state Capitol, had the look and feel of a highly partisan, heavily scripted campaign event. The venue underscored Scott's eagerness to make what is normally a staid, policy-laden event into one that turned the budget into a political declaration.
Inside the cavernous First Baptist Church of Eustis, Scott stood in front of a made-for-TV backdrop that said "Reducing Spending & Holding Government Accountable."
The church, which seats 800, was filled to overflowing, and people waved miniature American flags and sang God Bless the USA and God Bless America.
Warmup speakers criticized President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, and praised Roger Vinson, the federal judge in Pensacola who last week ruled the health care law as unconstitutional.
Before the public event, Scott hosted a private lunch for tea party activists at a nearby civic center.
Within an hour of posting the budget online at the governor's LetsGetToWork.net site, the site crashed. The governor's office reported that the system couldn't handle the more than 50,000 simultaneous users.
The agency with the deepest cuts is the Department of Community Affairs, the growth management oversight agency whose functions Scott proposes folding into the Department of Environmental Protection. The agency will be slashed from 358 jobs to 50 by the second year and its $778,000 budget reduced to $110,000.
Corrections loses the most staff under Scott's budget, with 1,690 jobs eliminated. But rather than reduce the prison program by $1 billion, as Scott suggested on the campaign trail, the budget measures just a $82 million reduction in spending over the governor's first year.
Scott noted that many state workers will complain about the reductions but, he told supporters, "What we have to remember is we're doing this for the sake of our children and grandchildren."