As the Florida legislative session is nearing its end, it’s looking like Gov. Rick Scott is not getting much of what he wanted.
Of course, all that could change. The final days of session are notorious for bills coming back from the dead and hundreds of millions of dollars magically appearing. But in the middle of the budget conference, Gov. Scott is getting shortchanged on his short list. He’s getting less than half of his tax cuts. His huge corporate incentive piggy bank is drying up and his plan to use local property taxes instead of state revenue to increase school funding is a no-go.
Scott didn’t have many priorities but his three main ones were whoppers.
First, Scott wanted the Legislature to boost K-12 education spending to an all-time high. He wanted increased property taxes resulting from higher home values to fund the growth in spending. Instead of using state funding — like sales tax — under his plan the money would come from the counties and would shift the balance of state/local funding to the locals, who would foot 60 percent of the bill and 85 percent of the increase.
The House and Senate also wanted to increase education funding but had different amounts in mind. The governor wanted to increase funding by $507 million, the House by $600 million and the Senate by $650 million.
The Senate opposed Scott’s funding plan and opted to use state revenues — not increased property taxes — to pay for more education funding.
Midway through the budget conference, the House and Senate agreed to boost school funding by $458 million — a one percent increase per student. The two chambers also agreed to completely fund it with state revenues. Floridians could see a slight decrease in their property taxes.
The governor can leave session with an increase, but it’s not as much as he wanted and, more disappointing for him, it used state revenues that he wanted for his other priorities. The silver lining: He can still claim a historic level of school funding, but just barely. The increase is $52 more per student than the record high level in the 2007-08 school year.
Scott’s second priority is $1 billion in tax cuts skewed to business interests. He specifically requested $770 million over two years to reduce the corporate income tax for manufacturers and retailers, $73 million to permanently eliminate the sales tax on machinery and equipment, and $100 million to reduce sales tax — from 6 percent to 5 percent — on commercial rents (stores, offices and warehouses).
Scott pulled out all the stops. Despite enlisting the help of business groups, airing $1 million in TV spots, and selling his tax-cut plan on his statewide bus tour, the Legislature took a different approach. Its more modest $400 million tax-cut plan is geared to individuals, with half of the tax cuts in the form of sales tax holidays and other one-time reductions.
While revenues were up $1.2 billion over last year, needs were up as well. The Legislature had to replace $400 million in lost federal aid for hospital care for low-income patients. Add to that the $458 million in increased school funding and $400 million in tax cuts and the surplus is gone.
Scott negotiated a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe that would generate an estimated $3 billion in revenue over seven years. The Legislature would need to act on the compact but at this point in the session the gaming bill appears to be dead.
Third, the centerpiece of Scott’s short but expensive priority list is for economic development incentives — a nice way to say corporate welfare. Scott requested $250 million. Yes, a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar slush fund to entice corporations to move to or expand in Florida.
Scott touted this in his TV ads, on his bus tour and through the state’s mayors who wanted some of that largesse in their communities. He hoped to pressure the legislators to comply.
The conservative group, Americans for Prosperity, was doing its best to prevent lawmakers from engaging in what it considered crony capitalism. The group — well funded by the Koch Brothers — argued against government picking winners and losers.
The Senate agreed to fund Scott’s request, but the more conservative House adamantly refused. In previous years, the House acquiesced to some portion of Scott’s funding request, but this year — zero.
This year’s legislative session is scheduled to end on March 11. Most of the wheeling and dealing is yet to come, but for now the governor’s wish list is in shambles.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.