Gov. Rick Scott had a blunt request for lawmakers when he unveiled his budget: "Just pass it."
On Wednesday, after legislators spent days battering the governor's budget team with demands for details they couldn't supply, Scott sent a different message.
"He is not suffering under the idea that everything that we have proposed here will pass," Jerry McDaniel, Scott's top policy and budget adviser, told the Senate's Budget Committee. "He's not absolutely tied to every tenet in this budget. The exact amount of tax relief — not tied to it."
The change in tone reflected what many say the governor's budget lacked: a dose of reality in the state Capitol. And it was a clear sign that Scott, a multimillionaire dealmaker-turned-politician, is still mindful of what it takes to negotiate.
"You never get the deal you want," Scott is fond of saying.
And what Scott wanted — $2.4 billion in tax cuts in the face of a $3.6 billion budget shortfall — is essentially out of reach for the Legislature. It has the responsibility of passing the budget. And it has to balance the needs of the fourth-most populous state against Scott's campaign promise to radically restructure the state's business climate and budget.
Scott's hard-core conservative message was delivered by an unlikely source, McDaniel, who was former Gov. Charlie Crist's budget director. In that role, McDaniel had to withstand attacks from legislators who said Crist's budget was too generous.
Now, as Scott's budget guru, McDaniel has essentially been accused of being too stingy with a $65.9 billion proposal. He echoed Scott in arguing that less government spending will help people by helping businesses grow.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, questioned the wisdom of cutting $200 million from the state's transportation trust fund, which he said would reduce road projects and cost jobs. He also wondered about Scott's proposal to eliminate 619 jobs at the Department of Corrections for a $2.8 million savings.
"Is that worth it? Are we benefiting from that — to put 619 people out of work?" Fasano asked.
"Here and there, it adds up to real money," said Sen. J.D. Alexander, the Lake Wales Republican who chairs the budget committee.
McDaniel agreed wholeheartedly with Alexander.
"When looked at in isolation some of the decisions probably look like you're not getting enough juice from the squeeze," McDaniel said. "It does create layoffs. … But if you're a taxpayer, out of your pocketbook, having to fund these salaries year in, year out for 10, 20 years, it adds up to a lot of money."
McDaniel said the governor would try to eliminate the jobs through attrition rather than through layoffs. But, he said, some current workers would still lose their jobs.
The Senate's Democratic leader, Nan Rich of Weston, said she opposed Scott's request to take $607 million in local-government tax money dedicated to health care and redirect the cash into the state's general-revenue fund. The local government money draws down federal cash for Medicaid.
McDaniel said he would review the health money, which "would be held sacred" for hospitals. In all, the governor wants to refill the state's general-revenue fund by partly or totally collapsing about 124 pots of money known as "trust funds."
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, asked whether the move would result in a de facto tax increase for scores of industries that pay specific fees to the various trust funds for specific government services.
McDaniel said it was an "arguable point."
McDaniel repeatedly said that the governor's office would supply more detailed information. He also said Scott was "flexible," though Scott clearly wanted a $300 million pot of money for economic-development incentives and wanted to phase out the corporate income tax.
Scott sounded a far more certain tone about his budget on Jan. 19, when he spoke with reporters at the Associated Press planning day in Tallahassee.
"My budget proposal is going to pass," Scott said.
Scott hasn't just softened his tone in public. He has backed away from trimming $1.4 billion in property taxes for schools, and proposed a $507 million cut instead. Scott also wants state employees to start contributing money toward their pensions, which could amount to an overall savings of about $1 billion. Still, there will be cuts to schools of at least $3.3 billion.
Sen. John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, asked McDaniel to rate the chances of Scott's budget passing.
"He'd like a lot of this to pass," McDaniel said. "He believes it's a good budget for the state of Florida."
Thrasher, who was the Republican Party chairman when Scott won election in November, said it was refreshing that Scott was trying to make good on his campaign promises.
"It's incumbent on us to, as close as we can, make it happen," Thrasher said.
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Steve Bousquet and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.