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PolitiFact Florida | Tampa Bay Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact: Rick Scott says state debt was up $5.2B under Charlie Crist

Gov. Rick Scott is decking Charlie Crist on Florida's debt.

Speculation abounds that Crist, who recently became a Democrat but was a Republican when he served as governor, will challenge Scott's 2014 re-election bid.

"In the four years before I became governor, we increased state debt $5.2 billion. We've paid it down $2 billion," Scott said in response to a question about possibly running against Crist during an interview with CBS-4 Miami. "That's going to cost you money down the road, so we're doing the right thing."

Scott's talking point on the debt is part of a broader strategy to contrast the dour economy Florida experienced during the Crist years with the state's turnaround since 2011.

PolitiFact Florida wanted to check Scott's arithmetic and evaluate the point he's trying to make about each leader's influence on the debt.

Debt down low

We hear a lot about the perils of the $16.4 trillion national debt, accumulated over years of the federal government borrowing money to pay for the cost of running the country.

State debt is a very different animal.

Unlike the federal government, Florida is bound by law to balance its budget every year. However, the state is allowed to borrow money to pay for capital improvement projects, such as university buildings, roads and environmental preservation.

As of June 30, 2012, the state's total outstanding debt was $26.2 billion.

Scott's math works if you compare the fiscal year ending in 2006 with the one ending in 2010 (+$5.2 billion), and then 2010 with the 2012 fiscal year (-$2 billion).

But some experts told us the better way to compare debt between governors is by examining the budgets over which the governor actually had control to veto spending.

Crist was elected in 2006 and took office in January 2007. That means the first budget he signed — which included projects in need of bond financing — covered the 2008 fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2008. The last budget Crist signed was for the 2011 fiscal year, which ended six months into Scott's tenure.

So, to some experts, it's more accurate to assess the growth of the debt under Crist from FY 2008 to FY 2011. This method produces an increase of $3.4 billion in debt, which is still large but not as big as the $5.2 billion that Scott claimed.

Scott gets the same treatment. He took office in January 2011, so the first budget he signed covered the budget year running July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012. Under this measure, Scott reduced the debt $1.5 billion.

What was happening?

Even during the worst of Florida's recession, Florida borrowed money for capital projects, all the while maintaining its credit ratings with various agencies.

"We've been very well managed financially even during the downturn," said Ben Watkins, executive director of the state's Division of Bond Finance. "We're very conservative."

The sharp decline in debt is due to the state's discontinued borrowing for acquiring conservation land and the decline of the state's largest borrowing program, called Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO, for public school, college and university construction projects. The decades-old program is paid for by a tax on electric, gas and telecommunications services, a source that has shriveled over recent years.

In his first year, Scott vetoed $474 million in bonds, including dozens of improvement and construction projects at state colleges and universities. Scott lowered debt issuance to $416 million, its lowest level since 1990 and significantly less than the $2 billion yearly average for the previous decade.

Conversely, the rapid increase in debt after 2002 was driven mostly by the 2002 class-size amendment added to the state Constitution by Florida voters that year. It required the Legislature to reduce class sizes by adding more classrooms. It cost the state $2.5 billion to build more class space, which included $1.9 billion in lottery revenue bonds, said David Jacobson, a spokesman for Moody's Investors Service. That program is essentially over, he said, which contributes to the debt falling.

Our ruling

We give Scott some credit for his broader point about the debt's steady rise under Crist and sharp decline under his tenure.

But the numbers he uses are not accurate if you consider the budget years over which Crist could have exerted any control.

Moreover, some bonds Florida issued were to pay for programs in the works before Crist took over, or the Legislature shares at least some of the blame for putting it in the budget.

Finally, there was a spike in the debt after 2002 that was driven by a constitutional amendment to limit class sizes. Voters approved that measure, and the state government was required to put it into action.

Overall, we rate this claim Half True.

PolitiFact Florida is partnering with 10 News. See video fact-checks at WTSP.com/PolitiFact.

The statement

"In the four years before I became governor, we increased state debt $5.2 billion. We've paid it down $2 billion."

Gov. Rick Scott, in an interview

The ruling

PolitiFact ruling: Half True
Scott's numbers are a little off if you look at the actual budgets both he and former Gov. Charlie Crist had some control over. Also, some bonds Florida issued were to pay for programs in the works before Crist took over, or the Legislature shares at least some of the blame for putting it in the budget. We rate this claim Half True.

PolitiFact: Rick Scott says state debt was up $5.2B under Charlie Crist 01/13/13 [Last modified: Sunday, January 13, 2013 8:38pm]

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