Gov. Rick Scott calls his final budget a real investment in Florida’s future, but some fellow Republicans have a different word for it.
Scott’s $87.4 billion spending plan is now in the hands of the Legislature, which agrees with some of his ideas, clashes with others and will draft its own competing version in an election year.
“This is my final budget,” Scott said. “My goal is that next year is an historic year.”
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At a pivotal moment, when Scott must leave office and is weighing a run for U.S. Senate, he wants to steer billions of dollars more to education, environmental protection, mental health, affordable housing and the fight against the opioid epidemic, give raises to select groups of workers and still cut taxes and stockpile billions more for a rainy day.
The same governor who two years ago vetoed a $2,000 pay raise for state firefighters now wants to raise their pay 10 percent and buy them lots of new equipment, too.
But the first flashpoint of disagreement is Scott’s bottom line: It’s $4 billion higher than what he proposed a year ago and $21 billion more than his first budget seven years ago.
It also sounds dead on arrival in the Florida House.
“Our goal is to pass a budget that’s a lower dollar amount than the governor,” said Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the lead budget writer in the House.
A second problem with the House is Scott’s reliance on $450 million in growth in property values, and higher property tax bills, to pay for most of a $200-per-pupil increase in public school spending next year.
Scott and the Senate insist that rising property values are good for homeowners.
The House calls it a tax hike.
In the current budget, the House’s position prevailed.
“We’re not raising taxes,” said House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.
The Republican governor’s last effort to influence spending is a far cry from his first budget in 2011.
Seven years ago, at a Tea Party rally at a Baptist church in Eustis, north of Orlando, Scott unveiled his first budget with a 10 percent across-the-board cut in public school spending and a vow to shrink the role of government to “only its core functions.”
Democrats accuse Scott of a “self-serving” attempt to reverse direction in his last budget in an election year after seven years of shortchanging schools, healthcare and other services.
Using Scott’s math, the state will have $1.3 billion in new tax revenue next year. But state economists have repeatedly warned that another dip in tax receipts is possible, and that the costs of recovering from Hurricane Irma could far exceed any new money.
In ways large and small, lawmakers find places where Scott’s spending plan falls short.
Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, who represents nine poor, rural counties in North Florida, said many residents rely on free internet at state-funded libraries because of very limited access to cable TV in places like Blountstown, Madison and Mayo.
He questioned whether the $28 million in library grants in Scott’s budget will meet their needs.
“The library is it, and these libraries are busting at the seams,” Beshears said.
Across rural Florida, Scott has faced criticism for not spending more money to help struggling rural counties attract jobs, the hallmark of Scott’s tenure.
Thirty-six of the state’s 67 counties have fewer jobs today than in 2007. Some of those counties are also losing population in a sign of serious economic decay in a high-growth state.
We keep telling people our state’s doing great, and then they tap us on the shoulder and say, “Not here.”
Rep. Brad Drake, Republican, Walton County
“We keep telling people our state’s doing great, and then they tap us on the shoulder and say, ‘Not here,’ ” said Rep. Brad Drake, a Republican from the Panhandle’s rural Walton County.
Yet another sign of Scott’s willingness to loosen the state’s purse strings is that he’s winning praise from some Democrats, who have consistently said that Scott has starved vital services.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg, said it’s encouraging to see Scott proposing $100 million next year for restoration of beaches, $55 million to clean up springs, $50 million for state parks and $50 million for the Florida Forever land preservation program.
“We’ve not been making the investments we need to make in these important environmental protections. There needs to be a sustained commitment,” Diamond said. “We should use his budget as a starting point, as a floor.”
We’ve not been making the investments we need to make in these important environmental protections. There needs to be a sustained commitment.
Rep. Ben Diamond, D-St. Petersburg
A part of the problem, Diamond said, are spending restrictions favored by Corcoran.
Diamond noted that in the 2017 legislative session, Corcoran and other House GOP leaders opposed any new money for Florida Forever, and under a House procedural rule, a budget amendment that exceeds a spending allocation approved by the speaker for a specific program is out of order. Diamond said that unfairly limits the ability of individual legislators to influence spending.
“That’s staggering to me,” Diamond said. “Our rules give tremendous authority to the presiding officer in building a budget.”
Most senators and House members are Republicans, but they also disagree on the importance of parochial spending for hometown projects in lawmakers’ districts.
Senators historically put more of a premium on pork-barrel spending than the House, but there are three times as many House members as senators, and they’ve filed $2 billion in requests for projects.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the newly installed Senate budget chairman, said that despite the usual differences on spending, a new balanced budget will come together — as it must, under the state Constitution.
“We agree on so much more than we disagree on,” Bradley said. “I’m very encouraged at this stage of the process.”