How will Legislature spend extra money?
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 23, 2013 at 7:37 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Political arguments over money usually stem from an absence of it, especially in a state Capitol that has struggled through deep budget cuts in recent years.
So a sharp exchange last week between Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford was notable.
Enjoying a budget surplus for the first time since the Great Recession started, Scott and Weatherford now have the luxury of arguing over how much to spend on teacher pay raises.
The rift between two of Florida's top elected leaders illustrates that there is still plenty to disagree on, even in good budget years. But an influx of tax revenues is brightening the overall mood in the Capitol this year.
It is palpable in committee hearings, where lawmakers joke about who will secure more hometown projects.
It also is evident in budgets coming out of the governor's office and both chambers that propose more than $1 billion in additional education funding, along with state worker pay raises and a host of other increases.
Despite a lot of talk during the Great Recession about belt-tightening and responsible budgeting, lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Legislature are happy to spend money when they have it.
In fact, the spending plan they approve this year could be the largest in state history.
Education appears to be the big winner so far, but the size of the increase and what strings will be attached are major points of contention as the 60-day legislative session nears the midpoint and budget talks heat up. Clashes over economic incentive funding, pet projects and other budget details are likely.
Budget chiefs in both the House and Senate are cautioning against too much optimism, telling lawmakers that funding for many programs could still be constrained.
Hanging in the balance is Scott's 2014 re-election bid, which could receive a boost if his budget priorities are approved.
Scott's critique of Weatherford was unusual for the mild-mannered governor.
State economists project a $3.5 billion budget surplus this year, about $1 billion of which is expected to be put in reserves. Scott wants to devote a large chunk of the rest — $480 million — to teacher raises.
The Senate has agreed to meet that dollar amount.
Budget figures released by the House last week were not detailed enough to determine whether the House will go along, too, but Scott wasn't happy. He called Weatherford's budget proposal “interesting” and slammed him for being “against the pay raise for classroom teachers.”
While not offering details yet on the House education budget beyond an overall $1 billion increase, Weatherford said there will be plenty of money for teachers.
“For anybody to say we're not funding teachers, it's not true,” he said.
State leaders also are at odds over whether to link teacher raises to classroom performance, or offer an across-the-board boost as Scott is proposing.
The dispute illustrates the importance of the budget process in state politics. Lawmakers want to get the most political mileage possible from the money they have to spend.
Scott has dismally low approval ratings. Delivering a big increase in education funding could boost his image.
Budgets tell the public a lot about where your priorities are as a lawmaker, said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate's education budget chief.
“We've tied our policy priorities with our funding priorities,” he said, noting increases in the education budget for everything from universities to K-12 schools and technical education.
Galvano may have the best job in the Legislature this year.
More money is flowing into his portion of the budget than anywhere else. Lobbyists for school districts and universities came up to thank him after an education appropriations committee meeting last week.
Even the teachers union lobbyist had nice things to say.
“I think that's a first for me,” Galvano joked.
The high spirits of many in the committee meeting led Florida School Boards Association President Wayne Blanton to recall the words of a wealthy friend.
“He said: ‘Money can't necessarily buy happiness, but it sure can rent some good times,' ” Blanton said.
That good times are returning to the Capitol was clear in another key Senate committee last week.
“I've never done a meeting like this,” said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, as he convened a hearing Wednesday of the Subcommittee on General Government Appropriations.
What followed was a parade of lawmakers seeking budget earmarks for their local communities. The city of Opa-locka wanted money for flood control programs. The city of Doral requested funds to stabilize crumbling canal walls.
Lawmakers don't usually appear at public meetings, hat in hand, asking for money. Budget sweeteners are typically buried in spreadsheets or stuffed in at the last minute with little notice.
Scott made a show of vetoing many of these proposals two years ago when he was trying to court the tea party movement's favor and project an image of fiscal restraint.
The governor's position on earmarks began to soften last year. He approved $5 million for a rowing center and a host of other hometown spending projects. The demand for such funding — especially the city and county water projects overseen by Hays' committee — is even greater this year because many governments delayed infrastructure improvements during the recession.
Hays said his committee has received $147 million in requests from local governments for water-related projects.
That lawmakers and local governments feel more comfortable asking for money this year is another sign that the budget is improving.
“Most of those that made it into the budget were vetoed” by Scott in recent years, Hays said.
Hays said Scott's office established criteria for ranking a project's value and lawmakers agreed to a public vetting process.
“This is the transparency of today's Legislature,” he said.
Scott could benefit from the goodwill that such projects engender with lawmakers, who like to bring home money to their local communities. The mood at last Wednesday's committee was light. Lawmakers joked and ribbed members who were requesting large numbers of projects.
“Believe me, it feels a whole lot better to have this budget environment,” Hays said.
Can't please everyone
Senate Appropriations Committee Chair Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is quick to point out that the economy, and the budget, are still unstable.
“We have to be cautious because the economic conditions in Florida are subject to change,” Negron said.
After years of cuts, needs still exceed available dollars. There are bound to be plenty of unhappy people when the budget is finalized in the coming weeks.
The Senate's budget shorts Scott's funding proposal for economic development programs by a wide margin, denying the governor's requests for an extra $21 million for Visit Florida, the state tourism agency, and $173 million in incentives to help lure companies to the state. The Senate is proposing just $16 million for another business incentive program. Scott wanted $103 million.
Weatherford said House leaders also are more skeptical of economic incentive funding this year. One company that received substantial state incentives recently collapsed, and others have generated fewer jobs than promised.