1. Florida Politics

Gov. Rick Scott's tax cuts and education spending at risk in House and Senate budgets

Gov. Rick Scott proposed a budget of $76.98 billion.
Gov. Rick Scott proposed a budget of $76.98 billion.
Published Mar. 21, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Less than two months ago, an enthusiastic Gov. Rick Scott, fresh off his re-election victory, unveiled his plan to spend Florida's $1 billion surplus.

Tax cuts to the tune of $673 million. A record level of per-student spending. More money for Bright Futures scholarships.

But as the release of the House and Senate budgets showed on Friday, Florida's financial picture has changed dramatically since then. And Scott, who's gotten used to having much of his agenda endorsed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in past years, could be due for a disappointment.

Now that lawmakers might be facing a potential $1.3 billion hole in the health care budget, many of Scott's once-obtainable goals are in sudden limbo as money gets shifted around to cover gaps.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said matching Scott's tax cut package is far less certain in an $80.4 billion Senate budget that now includes $2.8 billion in federal money to pay for expanded health care coverage and $2.2 billion earmarked for uninsured and under-insured patients through what's called the Low Income Pool, or LIP. The federal government has said the LIP program is ending this spring.

"We have a LIP model that's expired," Lee said when asked about the prospects of Scott's tax cut package. "We can't go home with Tampa General Hospital losing $120 million or other hospitals who are struggling to make ends meet. Budgets reflect priorities."

Lee wouldn't rule out matching Scott's tax cuts, which include a $470.9 million-a-year cut in taxes on cellphones, cable and satellite TV; a $41.4 million cut in sales tax on college textbooks; and an $18.4 million cut in the corporate income tax.

"There are always pieces of the budget that are negotiated late," Lee said. "A tax package can be addressed later."

Lee's counterpart in the House, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Trinity, has not included Medicaid expansion or LIP money in the House's $76.2 billion budget, which is $4.3 billion less than the Senate's. Subsequently, he said the House has plenty to match Scott's tax cut proposal.

"I'd imagine the governor is really pleased with our priorities," Corcoran said. "He had an excellent tax package. And I think we'll exceed it."

He said the House will includes Scott's cuts in the communications service tax and college textbooks.

But for the House to convince the Senate to include those cuts in the final legislative budget, it will have to close the $5 billion chasm on Medicaid and LIP. If he has a plan to do that, Corcoran isn't saying.

"There have been massive differences between the House and Senate budgets in years past," Corcoran said. "Some way we were able to work it out and hopefully that'll be the case this year.

Both proposed budgets come in below Scott's main proposal to spend a record $7,176 per student. The Senate's $21 billion proposed education budget boosts per-student spending to $7,123. The House is looking at $7,130 per child.

House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said his budget proposal was "in no way a slight to Governor Scott."

"Given the uncertainty with (the Low Income Pool), it made it impossible to get the number he wanted," Fresen said.

But Fresen pointed out that the House's proposed figure was $4 per pupil more than the record high.

"We at least wanted to accomplish (Scott's) goal of surpassing that high watermark," he said.

Scott has also said he wants to expand the Bright Futures scholarship program by $23.5 million and allow the awards to help pay for summer terms. He wants legislation that would prevent universities from raising graduate-school tuition above the rate set by the Legislature, too. Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has proposed much of the plan in a bill (SB 938) that is scheduled to have a hearing Monday before the Senate Higher Education Committee.

But the bill has no companion in the House, meaning its chances of becoming law are slim.

Both House and Senate budgets are severe disappointments to environmental advocates who had hoped Amendment 1, which passed overwhelmingly in November, would have meant more spending to buy, restore, improve and manage conservation lands. The Senate proposes $714.2 million on Amendment 1, but includes only $2 million for state's land purchasing program, an 84 percent cut from this year's budget.

"The Senate's budget proposal appears to ignore the very reason Florida voters approved Amendment 1," said Will Abberger, chair of the Amendment 1 sponsor committee.

The House directs $772 million to Amendment 1, but much of that is steered to land management programs that environmentalists say have little to do with the intent of the program.

"There is little to no funding for the purchase of new parks, wildlife habitat, or trails," Abberger said. "That's what people voted for."

Times/Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report. Contact Michael Van Sickler at Follow @mikevansickler.