Gov. Rick Scott appears to have finally gotten the message that Floridians care deeply about public education. His proposal to spend $1 billion more in 2012-13 on K-12 schools would go a long way toward making up for this year's painful $1.3 billion cut in funding. But Scott's $66.4 billion state budget plan would come at a high cost, cutting billions from the state's health care safety net, shortchanging other education needs, skimming money from funds dedicated for other purposes, and further cutting taxes for businesses. This isn't so much a thoughtful plan to invest in Florida's future as a short-term political calculation to increase the governor's rock-bottom poll numbers. The Republican-led Legislature can do better.
Scott's pledge to increase education funding is a substantial improvement over last year, when he proposed a 10 percent cut in per student spending. (The Legislature ultimately approved an 8 percent cut.) And some of the governor's other budget recommendations appear reasonable, such as shuttering roughly 5,000 unneeded prison beds as the crime rate falls and shoring up the underfunded state employee pension fund with a $120 million cash injection.
Yet the proposal Scott unveiled Wednesday still looked far more like a short-term shell game designed to appease conservatives determined to starve government than a serious examination of the state's needs, priorities and ambitions. For example, even as Scott claimed to have a newfound commitment to education, for the second year he would provide no maintenance or construction funds for school districts, state universities or community colleges. Yet charter schools — which serve just a fraction of the students and are often run by for-profit enterprises — could vie for a share of $55 million in state construction money. And despite spending the past several months extolling the economic development virtues of increasing instruction in science, technology and math-related fields in higher education, Scott suggests no additional state investment in higher education and no tuition increase.
Scott's plan to shrink Medicaid spending by $1.8 billion by changing the hospital reimbursement rate deserves consideration, as the former executive of a for-profit hospital chain contends the current system overcompensates some hospitals. But the issue lawmakers must weigh is what impact those funding changes — which include only $385 million in state funds but roughly $1.4 billion in federal match — could have on public, teaching or nonprofit hospitals that provide most of the indigent care in this state. Similar scrutiny should apply to Scott's plan to cut the state's Medically Needy program, which provides health care coverage for seriously ill Floridians who find their medical costs eclipse their financial means.
Scott also found room for about $33 million in business tax breaks next year and would raid millions from trust funds dedicated to everything from affordable housing to professional regulation to balance his budget. So while Scott may have learned about the importance of education to voters, his budget-writing is still more gimmick than fiscal leadership. State lawmakers can do a better job building a budget for Florida's future.