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Florida Gov. Rick Scott, agencies clash over spending priorities

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants to cut taxes by $500 million next year, trim state agency budgets by $100 million and appeal to voters in an election year with another hike in school spending.

Even though tax receipts are rising and state economists project an $846 million surplus in 2014, the math won't work.

While the Republican governor is asking agencies under his control to cut waste and reduce spending, they are asking for nearly $1 billion more on everything from child abuse investigators to prison beds to state troopers, in some cases to patch budget cuts made in previous years.

That's not all.

Medicaid, the health care safety net for poor and disabled Floridians, is projected to cost at least $400 million more next year, and the Legislature has its own list of priorities — starting with $220 million in water projects to help the polluted Indian River Lagoon, St. Lucie River estuary and Caloosahatchee River.

"Suffice to say, it would not be possible to fund them all, provide meaningful tax relief and address the other important issues that are facing our state," said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, the House budget writer, as he directed lawmakers to "discern between needs and wants."

Democrats say the costly wish lists by agencies underscores the state's vast unmet needs.

"Florida faces a preponderance of needs that have been neglected by, and in some cases caused by, the Republican leadership," said Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, the House minority leader. "Florida is in need of a vast array of significant new investments and new political leadership."

A deep recession, coupled with the home mortgage crisis, forced the state to cut $9 billion in spending over three years before the first surplus in six years led to a $74.1 billion budget for 2013-14, the highest in state history. The spending shortfalls hit across Florida government, and agencies are still smarting.

As the economy continues to recover, Scott wants to give back to everyday Floridians. The re-election-minded governor's top priority is cutting taxes and fees.

His proposal, due soon, will feature a partial rollback of unpopular hikes in car and truck tag fees passed in 2009 to patch a huge budget deficit. Those fee increases occurred, not coincidentally, under former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott's predecessor and likely gubernatorial opponent.

Scott wants to campaign for a second term as a guy who did motorists a favor when Crist didn't.

"My focus is on continuing to save money and giving people their money back," Scott said. "We're going to have the money. The economy's getting better."

Other tax cuts to be pitched in the 2014 session will include the popular back-to-school sales tax holiday and a partial repeal of sales taxes on businesses' electric bills, an idea championed by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, who also sees the conflicting fiscal pressures upon lawmakers.

"I've been in their shoes. I know they've got a lot of ideas," said Putnam, a former legislator. "They've got a budget they need to balance and concerns about a surplus that hopefully will continue to be as robust as they've projected."

Putnam's plan would cut the sales tax that businesses pay for electricity to 3.5 percent, saving them about $250 million a year, meaning that money would no longer be available for the state to spend. Tax cuts are popular, but they cost money.

Putnam himself, like other agency heads, is asking for more money for his priorities, such as $6.5 million to combat citrus greening, a bacterial disease that is seriously damaging the state's citrus industry, and $3.4 million to continue efforts to rid the state of giant African land snails that attack plants and buildings in Miami-Dade County.

Scott will have to confront the growing demand for change in the Department of Children and Families, where at least 20 children known to the agency have died since April, mostly from abuse or neglect, the Miami Herald has reported. A panel of experts told legislators last month that past budget cuts at DCF should be restored at a cost of many millions of dollars.

The Department of Corrections wants more than $120 million in new spending, nearly half of it to reopen two prisons and five work camps shuttered less than two years ago when the inmate population was on the decline. New projections show the number of inmates increasing.

The Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles is seeking an additional $35 million, including $11 million to re-engineer its system for issuing driver's licenses in an effort to reduce wait lines at offices. Agency executive director Julie Jones also is asking to hire 75 troopers to partially replace the elimination of 152 trooper positions from 2008 to 2010 in the depths of the recession.

"I'm asking for half of those back," Jones said.

The Florida Parole Commission says it needs $758,000 to address a backlog of ex-felons seeking to have their civil rights restored.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement wants another $19 million, including $2.1 million to hire more people to do background checks on gun buyers. FDLE said the program's annual workload has doubled since 2010 and is expected to reach 1 million checks this year.

Scott must decide which new programs to recommend to the Legislature, which makes the major spending decisions.

Information from the News Service of Florida was used in this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott, agencies clash over spending priorities 11/23/13 [Last modified: Saturday, November 23, 2013 9:47pm]
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