Standing before kindergarteners in suburban Jacksonville on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott tried to recast himself as a champion of public education. The backdrop for his signing of the 2012-13 state budget was meant to highlight spending an additional $1 billion on public schools next year. But the reality is Florida still will spend less next year per student than it did before Scott took office in 2011 and roughly $800 less than in 2007. The Legislature — and Scott — are still shortchanging the future by insisting on special interest tax breaks rather than adequately funding Florida's needs.
Scott claimed anew that every budget decision he made was based on ensuring Floridians got a return on their investment. Yet the governor — despite championing the 11 public universities as the state's best economic engine — accepted the Legislature's shortsighted scheme to raid $150 million in reserves from the universities to cushion a $300 million cut in state funding.
In the past five years, Republican legislators have cut higher education funding by one-fourth even as students have paid dramatically more. Scott let stand next year's tuition increase of somewhere between 5 percent and 15 percent. And for students at the University of Florida and Florida State University, it could be much more in 2013-14 if Scott signs another bill allowing those schools to charge market-based tuition.
Scott, like state lawmakers, contends all of this is necessary if the state is to truly be fiscally conservative and live within its means. But at least one Wall Street adviser disagrees. In the past month, Moody's Investors Services has cautioned that the Legislature's raid on university reserves and another shortsighted maneuver forcing counties to pay Medicaid claims they may not owe has damaged the credit rating of universities and counties. That ultimately means taxpayers will pay more when they need to borrow money.
Indeed, Scott's $143 million in line-item vetoes Tuesday felt scattershot. Among the cuts, he inexplicably vetoed $2 million for Legal Aid, a vital service that helps poor people who need access to the civil courts. Yet he let stand $5 million to help build a private rowing center in Sarasota County after receiving assurances that the center would generate twice as much in sales tax collections as the investment.
Scott left untouched what could still be the biggest turkey of all — $33 million to help establish an unwarranted 12th university championed by Sen. JD Alexander. Scott said he did so to ensure the University of South Florida maintains all its funding next year, regardless what happens to another bill on his desk that would speed separation of the university's Lakeland campus into a separate Florida Polytechnic University.
At least Scott signed off on the Legislature's minimal investments in the environment, including $8 million for Florida Forever, the state's land-buying program, and $30 million for Everglades restoration. But in a state of nearly 19 million, that's not enough.
Republicans in Tallahassee continue to ignore the reality that Florida can't keep cutting taxes for special interests ($134 million alone next year) and still expect there's enough left for real investment. Acting the part of education governor is no substitute for true advocacy. Until Scott goes beyond sound bites to demand lawmakers make significant new investment in Floridians and their future, his staged performances don't square with reality.