Scott's budget has $500 million tax cut
Published: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 12:06 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 29, 2014 at 5:44 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Using his budget proposal as a political weapon in a re-election year, Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday outlined a $74.2 billion plan that cuts taxes and increases education spending while also slamming his likely political opponent — his predecessor Charlie Crist.
Scott's message was blunt: He has cut more taxes, reduced more debt and created more jobs than the Crist administration, which faced the brunt of the Great Recession.
Addressing a group of reporters and editors at the Associated Press' pre-legislative session meeting, Scott said his budget contains more than $500 million in tax cuts, including a reduction in motor vehicle fees that were raised while Crist was governor in 2009, a cut in the tax on commercial leases and a 10-day sales tax holiday.
Scott said he has backed some 24 tax cuts through his three-plus years in office.
But he quickly pivoted his tax cut accomplishments into an attack on Crist, who served as governor in the four years prior to Scott.
"Our tax cut record in these four budgets represents a sharp contrast to the four budgets before we took office. We have cut taxes dozens of times, but the previous four budgets raised taxes by more than $2 billion," Scott said.
Scott said his budget will cut state debt by another $170 million, building on a $3.6 billion debt reduction during his administration, while noting during Crist's term debt increased by $5.2 billion.
Scott talked about government efficiencies while accusing the Crist administration of having "raided" the Budget Stabilization Fund — a reserve specifically designed to provide backup funding during an economic downturn.
And echoing what is likely to be his re-election theme, Scott outlined the state's economic progress over the past three years — again in contrast to Crist's administration.
"Florida shed more than 800,000 jobs in the four years before I took office," Scott said. "Taxes increased. Debt increased. And the unemployment rate rose to 11.4 percent — all while hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost.
"Florida was in a hole for four years, there was just more digging," Scott said. "Today that has all changed. Unemployment is down to 6.2 percent."
Scott also touted a record $18.84 billion public school budget. It will increase per-student funding by 2.5 percent to $6,949.
But it will fall short of the high mark of $7,126 in per-student funding set during the Crist administration, although Scott's K-12 budget will exceed the total funds spent in any one year during Crist's term.
Crist, though, offered a strong rebuttal on Wednesday, highlighting a series of severe budget cuts during Scott's administration and accusing him of making "an election-year transformation."
"When this fellow got elected governor, he ended up reducing education funding by $1.3 billion the first year. But it's worse than that, because he requested that it be reduced by $3.3 billion," Crist said. "That's unconscionable. How are we going to create good jobs for our young people if we're whacking the heck out of education?"
Crist also defended his support for the more than $400 million in motor vehicle fees that he and Republican legislative leaders backed in 2009 as well as a $1 billion increase in the state cigarette tax.
A former Republican who joined the Democrats in 2012, Crist said the fee and tax increases were "the right thing to do" given the depth of the economic recession. And he criticized Scott and legislative leaders for not rolling back the motor vehicles "a lot earlier" when the state's revenues began to recover.
"What were they thinking? It took them forever," Crist said.
Crist also criticized Scott's new K-12 budget, saying that it includes some $375 million in increased local property tax revenue — the result of keeping tax rates the same but benefitting from the growth in property values.
"Who's running the show around this place?" Crist said. "That's not right. When I was governor, I reduced property taxes and property insurance."
Scott's budget plan, which is slightly smaller than the current $74.24 billion budget, includes spending increases for most major state programs, relying on an anticipated $1.2 billion revenue surplus in the coming year.
His proposal is largely in line with the legislative leadership, with Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, agreeing with his call for more than $500 million in tax cuts. Gaetz said lawmakers may offer some different tax cuts, although they agree with the governor on eliminating the motor vehicle fee increases.
Funding for state universities and state colleges would reach record levels under Scott's plan, with the university system receiving a $118 million boost, including $40 million in performance-based funding. Scott reiterated that he wanted to keep higher education costs "affordable" and would not accept a tuition increase.
Scott's budget eliminates 1,233 state jobs — with most positions being vacant — but also proposes hiring nearly 1,200 new workers, including a major boost in child-protection workers and correctional workers to handle a growing prison population.
The plan does not include a pay raise for state workers, although they would be eligible for $167 million in bonus pay.
In health care spending, Scott did not propose any expansion of Medicaid under the federal health care law. He proposed $60 million in cancer research funds that will be awarded to medical centers on a competitive basis.
On the environment, Scott is asking for $130 million for Everglades restoration and $30 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program — that would also be boosted by the potential sale of $40 million in state land.
For state prisons, Scott's budget would wipe out a $41 million deficit in the current budget and increase the overall public safety budget by 5 percent, including enough funding to open five new prisons to handle a projected inmate increase.
Scott's budget is a recommendation to the Legislature, which will write the actual appropriations bill during the two-month session that begins in March. The new budget year starts July 1.