Gov. Rick Scott pitches 'Florida First' budget of $79.3 billion
JACKSONVILLE -- Gov. Rick Scott on Monday proposed a $79.3 billion budget for next year that would spend more on schools, cut taxes by $1 billion and eliminate nearly 1,000 more full-time jobs from the state workforce.
Scott rolled out his spending plan at Harbinger, a sign-making company on Jacksonville's south side where owner Roger Williams and dozens of his workers helped to promote Scott's call to permanently end the sales tax on equipment used in manufacturing.
Scott's "Florida First" budget would be about $1 billion dollars more than current spending, after allowing for Scott's $461 million in line-item vetoes.
He trumpeted a projected budget surplus of $1.3 billion, a figure disputed by state economists, along with a declining unemployment rate and continued population growth as positive indicators for Florida.
"We're clearly headed in the right direction," Scott told reporters. "Now we've got to invest that money well."
Scott's spending plans have already come in for criticism from some fellow Republicans in the Legislature. For example, about 75 percent of his proposed $507 million boost in public school spending would come from higher property tax bills on businesses and homeowners as a result of higher property values.
"What's great in our state is that property values are up. Incomes are up. Jobs are up," Scott said.
Scott's spending plan reflects two pillars of his successful 2014 campaign for re-election in which he promised Florida voters $1 billion in tax cuts over two years and a "historic' increase in per-pupil spending. His budget sets aside $7,221 per student and would surpass the previous record for per-pupil funding by $95.
On health care, Scott would eliminate an automatic increase in Medicaid payments to hospitals, and some lawmakers will fight Scott for not proposing that the state cover a projected loss of $400 million in payments to hospitals under the low-income pool program.
"Let's look at where our hospital industry is," said Scott, a former chief executive of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain. "They are at record profits again."
The governor's budget is a starting point in upcoming negotiations with the House and Senate in the 2016 regular session that begins on Jan. 12. The new budget will take effect next July 1.
The budget sets aside $250 million for a new Enterprise Fund to expand programs to recruit companies to come to Florida. That's a Scott priority in which he has recruited mayors to enlist their support and to lobby legislators.
Scott's budget resurrects ideas that have been rejected in the past by lawmakers, such as requiring senior management and select exempt state workers to pay the same amount for health insurance coverage as rank-and-file workers: $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 a month for family coverage.
The Scott proposal includes a net elimination of 864 full-time jobs from the work force. For the eighth year in a row, no money is proposed for across-the-board pay raises for state employees. Some full-time state workers qualify for food stamps.
Instead, Scott is floating a three-tiered bonus pay plan that would allow workers to earn up to $1,500 more a year.
"I've put in my budget a bonus plan for employees," Scott said. "We need to continue to focus on how do we make this state government more efficient ... It's somebody's tax money."
Scott is headed for another political showdown with Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who was outraged that Scott vetoed $2,000 pay raises for state forestry firefighters in June. Putnam proposed the pay raise again and Scott did not put it in his budget proposal.
"I'm disappointed," Putnam said in a statement, "but I'm not surprised after last year's veto. With a starting salary of $24,000 per year, our firefighters are at least as deserving as those who got pay increases last year and those who have pay increases included in the budget this year."
Scott supports of up to $10,000 pay raises for crime lab analysts and supervisors at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, an agency hampered by high turnover in those jobs due to low starting pay.
Scott wants to sweep $238 million from single-purpose budget accounts known as trust funds, an idea that frequently causes controversy among interest groups. He proposes keeping $5.3 billion in reserves and his budget does not assume any continued revenue from the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida with the state and the tribe at an impasse.
Scott wants to hold the line on college and university tuition. He set aside no incentive money to attract TV and movie production to Florida. He proposes $151 million for continued restoration of the Everglades.
Scott, who is frequently mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in 2018, was joined at the budget announcement by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a former state Republican Party chairman. The signs and graphics used for the event were in the same color scheme as Scott's "Let's Get to Work" political committee.