Local officials tentatively optimistic about Scott's budget
Published: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 1, 2013 at 5:26 p.m.
Local city, county and school officials say Gov. Rick Scott's proposed budget is promising but they add that the process has a long way to go before spending allocations are set.
Scott's proposed $74.2 billion budget for the coming fiscal year included an extra $15 million to help the University of Florida achieve top 10 status in the nation.
Local leaders say they are trying to figure out the impact Scott's proposals could have while also recognizing that the final budget passed by the Legislature could be significantly different from Scott's desires.
Benefitting most from Scott's budget would be Alachua County schools.
"The biggest chunks will be teacher raises and school safety," said school district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. "It doesn't sound like there is a whole lot of detailed information. This is simply the governor's proposal. Whether the Legislature goes along with it is a very big question."
Education at all levels is a major focus this year for Scott, a Republican elected with help from tea party advocates. He was criticized by school groups statewide after his first budget included cuts to education programs.
Now Scott is proposing to boost public school spending by $1.2 billion. That includes $480 million for teacher pay raises and $300 million toward teacher pensions.
Democrats voiced wariness about Scott's commitment to education when he announced his budget in Tallahassee on Thursday. Several Democratic legislators said the budget was aimed more at Scott's 2014 re-election hopes than at restoring funding for education, the environment and other needs.
The average salary, not including benefits, for Alachua County's 2,000 teachers is $41,583, Johnson said.
Scott's education budget also includes money for digital learning initiatives and school safety. However, the budget does not spell out how much each county would get or if the use of the money would be for mandated programs.
"You never know until you look at the details whether this money is to fund stuff you are already being required to do by the state," Johnson said. "Until we know for sure, we are kind of at a loss."
Since the proposed budget is a broad brush, Gainesville City Manager Russ Blackburn said it is not known if it would include any money specifically for the city.
However, Blackburn said the ripple effect of more money for UF would benefit the city as a whole.
Blackburn added that Gainesville's agenda for the next legislative session, which starts next month, includes requests for a variety of needs, including work by Gainesville Regional Utilities to improve the quality and flow of the waste and stormwater it sends to Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park.
"The idea that UF could get some additional funding is very positive for the city. UF is our big business and we want them to succeed," Blackburn said. "We are continuing to fund the Paynes Prairie restoration project and we would like money for that."
Scott's proposed budget includes $75 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program and $60 million for Everglades restoration.
Alachua County Commissioner Robert Hutchinson, who has been involved with Alachua Conservation Trust, said he doubts any local property targeted for purchase by the trust would be a high-enough priority to make the Florida Forever funding list. Alachua Conservation Trust is a non-profit land-buying organization.
Hutchinson added that, in terms of county government, changes to the way Medicare payments are coded could end up reducing county billings.
"One of the things down the list is to fix the billing system so that we are not penalized. It would reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved," Hutchinson said. "The other thing that is going to be interesting is to see if they move forward with doing away with the Florida Retirement System as we know it."
Retirement proposals call for phasing out the state-paid pension system and replacing it with a system similar to a 401(k) in which employees contribute a portion of their earnings.