Thursday, November 23, 2017
Politics

Legislature's school budget deal is one more defeat for Gov. Rick Scott

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers handed yet another defeat to Gov. Rick Scott on Sunday when they agreed to use state tax money and not local property taxes to pay for higher school spending next year.

Senate and House members quickly reached a consensus that Scott's plan to boost school spending to record levels was flawed because it put the cost almost entirely on homeowners and businesses that would have been hit with higher property tax bills for schools — even if the tax rate stayed the same.

Scott's recommended budget relied on local property taxes for nearly 90 percent of the school increase, noting accurately that past governors did the same thing.

His spokeswoman said it was "flat wrong" for the Legislature to accuse him of trying to raise property taxes. But after that criticism, lawmakers only dug in deeper.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the House budget chairman, embraced the idea, and the end result is doubly bad for Scott because it eats up most of the $400 million set aside for tax relief.

The bottom line is that lawmakers have changed Scott's definition of tax relief. Property owners will get a tax break, and Florida businesses that would have benefited from Scott's plan will get almost nothing.

"This increased investment in education should not result in steep increases in property taxes," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said after he and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, announced the deal.

For the past year, Gaetz has led the criticism of Scott over how to pay for schools. He told the Times/Herald last September that Scott's approach was dead on arrival in the Senate, vowing: "I cannot support this."

Under the tentative new school budget, per-pupil spending would increase by $71 next year to $7,178, slightly less than the $104 increase Scott proposed. The details must be ratified by the Legislature and signed into law by Scott — who could veto it.

Scott had proposed $507 million more for public schools, with all but $80 million paid by property owners.

The Legislature tore up Scott's blueprint and rewrote it by fractionally lowering the statewide property tax rate for schools and putting $428 million of state tax money into the school budget.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called it the right decision for most Florida taxpayers.

"When you start looking at all the tax cuts on the table, you start saying, what's truly the most broad-based, where you're not picking winners and losers? It is property taxes," Gardiner told the Times/Herald on Sunday.

To add insult to Scott's political injury, budget documents describe the fund shift as "local property tax relief," in bold type.

The not-so-subtle message is that if Scott vetoes the education budget, lawmakers will accuse him of rejecting a tax break for families and businesses.

But as a result, almost no money is left to pay for Scott's wide array of proposed tax breaks to help manufacturers, retailers and businesses in general.

Such politically popular annual events as tax holidays for back-to-school items and for hurricane preparedness are expected to be pared back dramatically to pay for school-related property tax relief.

The only tax cut Scott advocated that lawmakers appear ready to approve is a permanent repeal of the 6 percent statewide sales tax on equipment bought by manufacturers.

Republican lawmakers had previously trimmed Scott's $1 billion tax cut proposal to less than half of that, and they flatly dismissed Scott's demand for $250 million for a job incentive fund.

Some legislators are speculating openly that Scott could do what has not been done in decades: veto the entire budget and force the Legislature to do it all over again.

"He could," Gardiner said. "I don't know if he would take down the whole budget. I'm not sure."

Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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