TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott, who ran as a cost-cutting critic of “bloated” government, opened the state’s checkbook Thursday and urged the Legislature to pass a $74.2 billion budget, an increase of $4 billion.
Citing a surge in tax revenue from a reviving economy, Scott wants to give teachers $2,500 raises, award cash bonuses to state workers, give a sales tax break to manufacturers who buy equipment and make another small cut in the corporate income tax.
It’s the first time in five years that the state won’t have to make deep cuts, but legislative leaders are urging a go-slow approach to increased spending.
To balance his budget, Scott also would cut Medicaid services and payments to hospitals, squeeze $9 million in savings from county health clinics, spend no more money for mental health or substance abuse prevention, eliminate 3,600 more state jobs and freeze state workers’ salaries for the seventh straight year.
“We balanced the budget, paid down state debt, cut taxes, cut regulation and it worked,” Scott said. “Now we have the wherewithal to make more investments.”
Scott rolled out his “Florida Families First” budget at a news conference, surrounded by state university leaders, superintendents and teachers.
The scene was a vivid contrast from the same event of two years ago, when Scott told cheering tea party activists at a church in Eustis that he wanted to cut spending by $5 billion and make state workers contribute 5 percent of their pay to their pensions.
The centerpiece of his budget is a $1.2 billion hike in public school spending, including $480 million for the teacher pay hike and $300 million to reduce the unfunded liability in teachers’ pensions.
Scott’s job approval ratings remain stubbornly low among a majority of voters. But a “listening tour” to schools last fall has made him a cheerleader for education, and people say he listens more.
“It’s an excellent budget,” said Wayne Blanton of the Florida School Boards Association. “He listened to us and the business community.”
Mental health advocate John Bryant of the Florida Council for Community Mental Health said Scott’s unwillingness to spend more money for treatment was disappointing.
“Our concern is that this funding is flat after Sandy Hook,” said Bryant, referring to the mass killings at a Connecticut school in December. “We expected to see an increase.”
Other than schools, Scott’s new tax break for manufacturing equipment is his other top priority. The proposal allows manufacturers to buy new equipment tax-free, removing a hurdle that they show an increase in production.
Scott said it would save manufacturers $140 million a year in taxes paid by a wide range of industries such as defense and construction, who provide 4 percent of Florida jobs.
Nancy Stephens, executive director of the Florida Manufacturers Association, said the tax break will improve Florida’s competitive position with other southeastern states.
“Manufacturers are now at a disadvantage because while new and expanding companies don’t pay a sales tax, companies that have been here for years do,’’ she said. “We’re very excited about this.”
In higher education, Scott called for holding the line on state college and university tuition, while restoring some of a controversial $300 million cut to universities made last year.