Money and an improving economy make everything a bit easier. From public schools and universities to sensitive lands and the judiciary, Gov. Rick Scott's recommended state budget for 2013-14 signals a willingness to finally reinvest in Florida. But the governor's plan is by no means sufficient, spending less in key areas than before the recession and far less than needed to meet the state's needs or ambitions.
The irony Thursday was that Scott, who has spent two years slashing spending, is now banking on supplementing next year's budget with this year's savings — even as he proposes two more tax cuts for businesses. Florida is expected to have $3.9 billion more in general revenue in 2013-14, but $2.2 billion of that amount is left over from this year. Already legislative leaders are balking at spending so much of that leftover money.
Education officials — pummeled for the past two years as Scott led campaigns to slash spending for public schools and higher education — are exultant at the governor's proposal. Scott called his $1.2 billion in additional spending for public schools a "historic investment." But a growing population means the money would only raise per-student spending to $6,799 next year — significantly less than the $7,079 spent in 2007-08.
Scott's renewed commitment to fund school construction is also out of whack. Traditional public schools would finally see modest investment again ($127.5 million), but the smaller sector of publicly financed, privately run charter schools would get nearly as much construction money ($100 million).
Scott proposed $393 million in additional money for state universities — less than a year after pushing $300 million in cuts. The way Scott has allocated the new money, based on performance funding and degree-specific requirements, makes it unclear if the additional money will improve the average undergraduate's experience. The governor also set aside $15 million to help the University of Florida hire new faculty and reduce class sizes as it strives to become a top 10 university, apparently the price Bernie Machen extracted to remain UF's president.
The governor also would renew the state's commitment to purchase environmental lands — though he would finance the Florida Forever program mostly by selling other public land — and to restore the Everglades. He rightly proposes equalizing health care premiums for state workers and anticipates more Medicaid enrollees even without considering the broader expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.
Scott, as he begins to eye his re-election campaign in 2014, is clearly becoming more attuned to Floridians' priorities. This is the most well-rounded budget the governor has presented since he took office, but it is just a preliminary blueprint. It will be up to the Legislature to improve upon it.