Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott wants $1.2 billion more for schools, bonuses for state workers

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott will send the Legislature a $74 billion budget today that he says would boost spending in schools by $1.25 billion, but some of that money will never reach students.

As Scott touted the figure on Wednesday, a closer look shows that more than one-third of the money, $480 million, would pay for a $2,500 teacher pay raise that must be approved by county school boards and negotiated in union contracts, if it survives a skeptical Legislature.

Another $297 million of Scott's education increase would shore up an unfunded liability for teachers' pensions in the Florida Retirement System, and $118 million would keep up with enrollment growth as more than 20,000 new students are expected in Florida schools next fall.

Scott, who will release his budget at a 2 p.m. news conference in Tallahassee, will face more scrutiny about his budget math. But in prepared remarks at an Associated Press forum, Scott took credit for a rebounding Florida economy and said the "tough choices" he made, such as reducing state debt and shrinking the state work force, make new spending possible.

"Our economy is on track," Scott said. "We're now in a position to strategically invest in statewide priorities."

Scott also will propose giving most state workers $1,200 bonuses for satisfactory or better work, and bonuses of $2,500 or $5,000 to workers whose work is judged outstanding.

Republican legislators who craft the budget are lukewarm to Scott's education plan and say they want to see what programs he supports cutting so he can give schools more.

"Right now, our budget shows that we don't have $1.2 billion in surplus," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "So certainly, to get to that number, you would have to make some cuts somewhere else. But we're going to take his budget seriously, and we're going to look at it critically."

After four straight years of cuts to programs, the state is projecting a surplus of less than $1 billion to build the next budget, but virtually every other agency wants some of that money, and Scott's eagerness to spend it is not shared by legislators.

"Any budget surplus we may have is a little bit of breathing room," said Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.

Scott did not detail any possible cuts, and the Republican governor sidestepped questions of whether Florida will expand eligibility into Medicaid as contemplated by the federal health care law.

The expansion would be fully paid by the federal government in the initial years, but Scott and lawmakers are concerned that later costs would be the state's burden.

"I'll come out with my budget tomorrow, so you'll see," he said.

Gaetz and Weatherford, who also addressed reporters at the Associated Press forum, said they want more flexibility in how the state could expand Medicaid eligibility.

"The federal government gave us an all-or-nothing proposal,'' Weatherford said. "They said, 'You have to expand for all populations or you can't do any of this.' That puts all legislatures and all governments in a pretty good box."

Gaetz said the state should cover only some eligible people under an expanded Medicaid program.

"I have more concern about people who are above the poverty line," Gaetz said, "than I do somebody who is an adult and chooses to sit on the couch.''

Democrats say that Florida is dragging its feet and that Scott has used wildly inaccurate cost estimates to obstruct Medicaid expansion. They noted that a majority of Florida voters opposed a Republican-backed constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would have allowed Florida to sidestep federal health mandates.

"To not do this would be morally reprehensible," said House Democratic leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation. "We're talking about saving lives. That's the role of government."

Scott's third budget proposal, called "Florida Families First," would be the largest spending plan in state history and is designed to showcase his support for education as he eyes a 2014 re-election bid. Polls show Scott remains personally unpopular with a majority of Florida voters.

Scott said a $1.3 billion cut in education spending in his first year was unavoidable because federal economic stimulus money was expiring. What he did not say was that he proposed a 10 percent cut to schools, larger than the 8 percent lawmakers approved in 2011.

Scott also championed a 3 percent cut in teachers' pay last year, saying they needed to contribute to their state pensions.

"To have this sudden epiphany reeks of, 'An election year is coming,' " said Democratic Sen. Chris Smith of Fort Lauderdale.

Gaetz and Weatherford emphasized their shared support for different priorities, such as giving counties more flexibility to reduce voting lines, reforming Florida's campaign finance system, holding elected officials to higher ethical standards and changing the Florida retirement system to a 401(k)-style system in which workers would make their own investment decisions.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

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