Gov. Rick Scott recommended a $74 billion state budget Wednesday that is tied more to his re-election campaign than to a broad vision for Florida. There is a little something for everyone as the economy recovers, from unnecessary tax cuts to token spending increases for education, road construction and the environment. The reality is more sobering, as the Republican governor continues to favor tax breaks, privately run charter schools and smaller government over investing in the future.
The state will have more tax revenue to spend with the improving economy, but Scott would spend most of the new money on $500 million in tax cuts and has the support from legislative leaders. The cuts in motor vehicle fees and the sales tax holidays for back-to-school purchases and hurricane supplies will be popular. But they siphon money away that could be better spent on priorities that are still suffering from the hangover of the economic recession.
For example, Scott touts historic spending on public schools. That is true, but it is also misleading and factors in the cost for more than 12,000 new students. Nearly 70 percent of the $542 million increase comes from additional local property tax revenue generated by rising property values — yet Scott brags about avoiding tax increases. Per student spending would go up by $169, but it would still be $177 per student less than its peak before the economic recession. And once again, the governor would spend more construction money on privately run charter schools than on traditional public schools.
The state's 12 public universities can expect to continue to be pinched. Scott, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford predictably said Wednesday they will not support a tuition increase in this election year. The governor's proposed budget includes a spending increase of just $118 million, less than half of this year's increase. No wonder Florida's public universities have such difficulty keeping quality faculty and only one — the University of Florida — ranks among the nation's top 50 by U.S. News and World Report.
Also missing from Scott's budget proposal and the legislative leaders' priorities is any mention of Medicaid expansion. Accepting billions in federal dollars to provide coverage for 1 million uninsured Floridians would have a greater impact on quality of life and the state's economy than anything the governor and the legislative leaders are proposing. Yet Weatherford, who blocked the expansion last year, and Scott cannot set aside partisan politics and embrace the moral and economic arguments to accept the federal money.
The Republican election-year pitch to take full credit for the economic recovery is in full swing. Both Scott and Weatherford tout the state's declining unemployment rate, which now stands at 6.2 percent, and credit conservative leadership. The reality is that a significant portion of the decline in the jobless rate is tied to fewer Floridians looking for work, and that the state is barely adding enough jobs to cover population growth. The reasons for the gradual economic recovery are larger than anything coming from the governor and the Legislature, including the rising stock market, low interest rates, renewed population growth and increasing housing values.
Scott's budget recommendation is just that, and the Legislature is free to write a budget that better addresses Florida's pressing needs. Don't count on it. The economic recovery will enable the state to avoid the deep spending cuts of recent years. But voters who believe the state should be headed in a different direction will have to make their voices heard in November.