Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a status quo or “continuation” state budget faces growing resistance from leaders of the Florida Legislature, who say they can still resolve an impasse and produce a budget by July 1.
Taking direct aim at President Barack Obama, Scott took his case to Washington, D.C., on Tuesday where he met with Republican members of Congress, a day after a TV interview in which he sounded resigned to adopting a “continuation budget,” an idea met with opposition and bewilderment back home.
“What I believe is going to happen is this,” Scott said on Fox News’ On the Record with Greta Van Susteren. “We’ll just have a continuation budget, which will mean we’ll have about an $8 billion surplus. … We’ll just do what we’ve done this last year. We won’t put more money into schools, which I wanted to do. We won’t cut taxes, which I wanted to do. We’ll just leave the money there, and deal with it in our next session which starts in January.”
(Scott’s spokeswoman later said he meant to say the surplus is $1.8 billion, which budget analysts say is a correct figure.)
When he ran for reelection last year, the governor promised Florida voters a big round of tax relief and an “historic” boost in per-student funding in schools. Scott is now abandoning those pledges, even though legislative leaders are refusing to follow him.
Though divided during a tumultuous regular session, the Senate and House are steadfast about adopting a budget during a special session next month. They are surprised by Scott’s insistence on a continuation budget.
“I don’t think anybody really understands what a continuation budget is and how that would work,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando. “We’ve always intended to come back and do the budget.”
In a statement, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said: “The House would prefer to have a joint call with the Florida Senate to complete a budget before the July 1 deadline. The House is working hard toward that goal.”
The Legislature will hold a special session from June 1-20 to resolve differences in advance of the July 1 start of the fiscal year. The Senate insists on using state tax dollars to plug a federal hole to compensate hospitals for the cost of treating the poor, a program known as the low-income pool, and wants to use federal money to expand health care to the uninsured. The House opposes healthcare expansion that relies on Medicaid money.
As the stalemate drags on, Scott’s “continuation” rhetoric is complicating things.
“I’m not sure a continuation budget has ever been adopted,” said Jerry McDaniel, a former budget director for Scott, two previous governors and three attorneys general.
Scott hasn’t made clear in public statements or private conversations with legislators how his “continuation” spending plan would work or address critical needs that have emerged.
The current budget is $77 billion, but Florida’s growth puts pressure on lawmakers to spend more money each year.
For example, the state projects 15,000 additional public school students next fall. If a continuation budget means holding the line on schools, the cost of those extra students would have to be spread among all 67 school districts.
Scott has not said how a continuation budget would resolve a crisis in the deficit-ridden prison system, where the Senate wants to spend $16.5 million to fill critical vacancies among correctional officer positions.
A continuation budget would not address workload increases in agencies, waiting lists for critical services or pay increases for state workers.
And it is unclear how basic programs, such as road construction, would be affected. Transportation spokesman Dick Kane referred questions to Scott’s office.
Nor has Scott explained how a continuation budget would carry out the will of 75 percent of Florida voters who approved Amendment 1, the water and land protection ballot initiative. He said Tuesday Amendment 1 would be included, but provided no details.
A continuation budget also would mean no tax relief for Floridians — a goal most legislators want — and no new local projects in lawmakers’ hometowns that help them curry favor with their constituents.
That is why Scott’s call to, in effect, kick the can down the road is seen as a slight by lawmakers, who have known since March that their chasm on healthcare policy was so wide they probably could not agree on a budget by the May 1 end of the regular session.
“Halfway through session, the speaker and I knew we would have to come back for the budget,” Gardiner said. “We’re the appropriators. We write the budget. We’re all pretty committed to doing that. The only person that I’ve heard talking about shutting down the government is the governor.”
While in Washington, Scott huddled with more than a dozen members of the Florida congressional delegation, all of them Republicans.
Asked why he did not seek meetings with Democrats, Scott said: “They want Obamacare expanded. They’re not going to be helpful to me.”
Scott likened the Obama administration to a fictitious TV organized crime family by claiming it is using coercion to link continued federal funding of the low-income hospital pool to an expansion of Medicaid that he opposes.
“This is the Sopranos,” Scott said repeating a reference he made in April.
At Scott’s suggestion, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Michigan, chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee that oversees Medicaid, agreed to hold a hearing on changes to low-income pool funding “in the coming months,” a committee spokesman said.
Gov. Scott’s ‘continuation budget’
Gov. Rick Scott’s call for a “continuation budget” with no spending increases puzzles lawmakers and raises unanswered questions, such as these:
▪ SCHOOLS: Florida projects 15,000 more students in public schools next fall. If a continuation budget means no increase in school funding, school districts would actually lose per-student money.
▪ PRISONS: A prison system hobbled by corruption, inmate deaths and personnel shortages says it desperately needs $16.5 million more to fill 163 jobs. A continuation budget won’t allow for that or other critical spending increases the governor says he supports.
▪ ENVIRONMENT: Voters overwhelmingly passed Amendment 1, increasing state support for land and water protections. A continuation budget would not necessarily spend the money voters authorized.