The state Legislature on Friday promoted spending plans for next year that threaten Gov. Rick Scott’s priorities of tax cuts and a pool of money to attract jobs.
“I’m not very patient,” Scott said, sensing trouble ahead.
Over dinner Thursday and at breakfast Friday, Scott rallied his most loyal cheering section, the board of Enterprise Florida, an economic development group that wants $250 million now to spend over the next three years as incentive money to compete for new jobs with other states.
“We have to have this money,” Scott said.
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But as the nine-week legislative session enters Week 4, lawmakers have other ideas.
The House is generally supportive of Scott’s agenda, but its proposed budget of $80 billion does not include the job incentive money.
The Senate budget does, but only by including $100 million from settlement proceeds of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Scott told the Herald/Times he prefers that all $250 million come from readily available state taxes. He did not rule out oil spill money as a potential source “as long as it’s revenue that I know is going to be there so I can do deals,” he said.
The spending priorities of the Legislature and governor are never identical, but Scott faces an additional hurdle. He’s not very popular with voters, so Tallahassee politicians are more willing to challenge him.
As the House and Senate budget proposals show, legislators’ priorities clash with Scott’s:
▪ Senators would spend $29 million on pay raises for some groups of workers, including forestry firefighters, which Scott vetoed last June. He wants to give cash bonuses, not across-the-board pay increases.
▪ Legislators are attentive to the hospital industry, and they are unwilling to agree to Scott’s plan to reduce Medicaid money to hospitals with above-average profits.
▪ Lawmakers, as usual, are sprinkling their budgets with hometown civic projects, many of which Scott vetoed last year, calling them wasteful or unnecessary.
After the chaos and conflict of 2015, largely between Scott and Senate Republicans, both sides pledged to work more cooperatively this year. So far, so good: The budget is on track, unlike last year when talks collapsed, forcing an overtime session.
But philosophical differences persist.
Senate leaders oppose Scott’s plan to rely almost entirely on higher property tax payments to pay for a boost in school spending.
Nearly 90 percent of the per-pupil increase in K-12 spending in Scott’s budget would be paid for with higher property tax bills on homes and businesses as a result of higher property values, even if local property tax rates remain unchanged.
Scott calls that a positive trend, but some in his own party call it a back-door tax increase.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, wants to replace local property taxes with state tax revenue that Scott wants to spend elsewhere.
Gaetz said 88 percent of Scott’s proposed increase in school spending would come from local property taxes and the goal should be 50 percent, which would cost the state an additional $254 million, more than one-quarter of Scott’s tax cut target of $1 billion.
“The governor’s proposal off-loads 88 percent of [increased] education funding onto local property taxpayers,” Gaetz said. “This notion of tipping the balance … is a problem.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, supports the idea, which could take more than $250 million out of Scott’s call for $1 billion in business-friendly tax relief.
On healthcare, lawmakers are ready to sink Scott’s plan to reduce Medicaid money to hospitals that reported higher-than-average profits in 2014.
“That issue is off the table,” said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, who chairs the House Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee.
Instead, lawmakers want to distribute $608 million to reimburse hospitals for unpaid procedures based on their charity care each year. That ensures that most of the state’s safety-net hospitals, including Jackson Memorial, would earn 100 percent reimbursements.
On the environment, the House wants to spend Amendment 1 money on costs such as salaries, road repair and to buy a plane, uses that brought a lawsuit from environmental groups last year.
Scott antagonized some lawmakers last year when he vetoed $461 million in line-item spending. Undaunted, lawmakers are inviting a new round of wrath from Scott by putting some of those very same projects into next year’s budget.
They include $2.5 million for a commerce park in Lake Worth, $1 million for the Miami Design District, $800,000 for the Clearwater Historical Society and $250,000 to host modern pentathlon Olympic trials in Sarasota, a venture that’s being championed by former Secretary of State Katherine Harris.
Democrats accuse Republicans of misplaced priorities by emphasizing business-friendly tax cuts over improving the social services safety net for the poor and the middle class.
House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, criticized Republicans for excessive secrecy.
“It really is abusive,” Pafford said. “They’re sitting in a back room, playing with $80 billion of taxpayers’ money.”
Senate and House appropriations committees will amend and vote out respective budgets for the first time Wednesday.
Herald/Times staff writers Michael Auslen, Kristen M. Clark and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report.
Budget proposals at a glance
Highlights of the budget the Florida Senate released Friday:
▪ $20.3 billion for K-12 education ($7,249 per student, an increase of $142, or 2 percent).
▪ $34.1 billion for Health and Human Services.
▪ $9.1 billion for transportation.
▪ $303 million for affordable housing.
▪ $80 million for Visit Florida.
▪ $22 million for the Florida Forever program, which buys land for conservation.
▪ $8 million for researching citrus greening.
▪ $2.8 million for troopers to improve high-speed chase skills.
▪ $2.3 million for whittling down a backlog of untested rape kits.
Highlights of the budget released by the Florida House:
▪ $20.3 billion for K-12 schools.
▪ A $3.2 million pilot program aimed at diverting mentally ill people at risk of being involuntarily committed, including teams in Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough counties.
▪ No funding for an economic development fund at Enterprise Florida, one of Gov. Rick Scott’s top priorities.
▪ $33.7 billion in healthcare and human services.
▪ $8.1 million for additional prison guards.
▪ $4.3 million for fairgrounds and agricultural education.
▪ $65 million for the Florida Forever program.
▪ More than $9 billion in construction projects at the Department of Transportation.
Source: Florida Legislature