Tallahassee | Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a proposed budget Wednesday packed with more than $600 million in tax and fee cuts.
The announcement came after weeks of Scott dripping highlights of the $74.1 billion spending plan during news conferences across the state. The snapshot view was enough for state Democrats to start casting his budget as a product of election-year politics intended to help lagging approval ratings.
The budget’s foundation is built on Scott’s top legislative priority: cut taxes and fees by $500 million.
The largest portion of that is rolling back 2009 hikes on fees paid to register a vehicle. The roll-back is worth an estimated $400 million and would save the average driver $25 annually.
“The budget will undo that tax hike and give financial relief to the millions of Floridians who are paying fees on over 13 million annual registrations,” Scott said.
The second leg of Scott’s priority is a reduction in taxes levied on commercial leases, which total $1.4 billion annually. Scott proposes reducing the tax by $100 million.
Scott’s budget also proposes a 15-day sales tax holiday on hurricane-preparedness items and for back-to-school items, which would reduce state revenues by $80 million. The plan also includes a $33 million cut to fees paid by businesses when they file annual reports with the state.
The tax- and fee-cut package must make it past state lawmakers, who now get to write their own spending plan. The GOP-led Legislature will have a delicate dance.
They need to make sure the Republican governor gets enough legislative and budget “wins” headed into his re-election campaign, but also need to hold up some of Scott’s priorities to use as leverage when seeking their own priorities. It’s a normal part of the legislative process.
SPENDING INCREASES, TOO
From the spending side, Scott’s budget increases spending on K-12 education by $542 million, including $200 million in state funding. Florida’s education budget is comprised of state, local and federal money.
In a news release announcing the spending increase earlier this week, Scott called the funding level “historic.” Overall, the $18.8 billion education budget would be largest in Florida history, but comes up just short of the record per-pupil funding levels, which was set in 2007-2008.
Roughly $67 million of that increase comes at the local level from increasing property values. Though the local effort the state requires of school districts to generate its own incoome has remained consistent, there was a 4 percent increase in taxable value.
Though educators welcomed the increase, some were wary that it would fail to keep up with enrollment growth and newer state policies that mandate spending by local districts.
“I applaud the governor for acknowledging the need for increased education funding, but we’re still not recovered from the cuts in 2008-09,” Charles Van Zant Jr., superintendent of Clay County schools, said when Scott unveiled his plan.
Scott’s budget includes $3.5 billion for state universities, a $600 million increase from last year.
The past few years have been tough on state-funded universities, so University of North Florida President John Delaney was pleased to see more funding marked for his university than last year.
“I actually was not sure we were going to see much of an increase at all,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of vacancies that we haven’t filled. We have scholarship needs. We see a lot of catching up to do.”
Most public Florida universities, he said, are funding about one-third below the national average, so this was “certainly progress” toward working to that national average.
HELP FOR INMATES AND LOCAL ECONOMIES
In Baker County, a state-run re-entry facility — meant to provide job training and drug abuse help to inmates before they are released — may finally open its doors after sitting empty for at least a year.
Baker County Sheriff Joey Dobson said the Florida Department of Corrections didn’t have the money to operate the facility after they built it about a year ago. The governor recommends opening the 432-bed Baker County Reentry Center, and another in Miami, which would give the state three such facilities.
The facilities would help local economies as well as inmates.
The proposal includes hiring 91 employees at the Baker County center and provides $7,928,030 to get the facility running, Florida Department of Corrections spokeswoman Misty Cash said.
As for the inmates, who will be released from prison with or without the help a re-entry facility can provide, “That’s the last stop these inmates have before they go into the community,” Cash said. “They’re going to be sitting at church next to you. They’re going to be standing at the grocery store next to you.”
Though Scott unveiled his budget at the annual Associated Press’ editors meeting at the state Capitol, he did not stay to meet with reporters after his 15-minute presentation.
Scott’s budget also boosts funding for the Department of Children and Families, an embattled agency dogged by a spate of child deaths, some after mistakes made by the department. The $31 million boost in Scott’s budget would allow hiring 400 more investigators.
“While DCF has made significant changes to protect children, we still have much to do to protect the most vulnerable among us,’’ the governor said in a statement on Monday. “Even one child death is a death too many.”
A report conducted by the nonprofit Casey Families Program found that the state’s child-welfare system had “many shortcomings” that contributed to children dying from abuse and neglect, even, in some cases, where the department was involved.
MAYOR BROWN DISAPPOINTED
In Jacksonville, one of Mayor Alvin Brown’s primary education priorities — the college readiness Learn2Earn program — remained unfunded on the governor’s proposed budget. The three-year-old program never has been state funded, and its proposed funding was vetoed by the governor last year.
At a cost of about $500 per child. Mayor Alvin Brown ran the program this summer by using about $150,000 in donations from Florida Blue and the Farah & Farah law firm.
Karen Bowling, the mayor’s chief administrative officer, said about 280 students have participated in the program, which gives high school students a weeklong college experience where they go to classes, sleep in dorms and work at on-campus jobs. The program is targets students whose parents didn’t attend college.
She said the key to securing funding for the program would be to show how the program has a statewide benefit.
“We’re still working with state lawmakers,” she said. “The burden is on us to make our case.”
DEMOCRATS NOT SOLD
The Florida Democratic Party has been hammering Scott’s proposals as pure politics, and hitting him for budget cuts he signed into law during his first years in office.
“These extreme election-year makeovers won’t fool Floridians, who have learned to ignore Rick Scott’s promises and look at Rick Scott’s actions, the cuts he has signed into law — to public schools, to Bright Futures, to colleges, to environmental protection,” said Joshua Karp, a party spokesman.
Democrats also have been critical of Scott for proposing to use too much of the state’s increased revenues to financer tax and fee breaks rather than investments in health care and education.
State economists estimated in December that the state would have $1.3 billion more to work with compared to earlier 2014-2015 estimates.
Lawmakers are set to take their first crack at Scott’s spending plan next week, as six appropriations subcommittees will hold hearings to question Scott staffers about the proposal.
Matt Dixon: (352) 233-0777
Meredith Rutland: 359-4161