BRADENTON – Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a $74.2 billion state budget Thursday that would be the largest in Florida history, a major change of course for the outsider governor who campaigned to slash spending and shrink government. Scott’s proposal includes pay raises for teachers and state workers, an increase in primary and secondary educational funding, as well as spending directed at several environmental and social programs which have suffered in his previous two budgets Scott has signed.
|Florida Governor Rick Scott
Scott's opponents attacked the proposal as a desperate attempt by the unpopular governor to win support as he heads into a reelection campaign next year. They argued that most items stood little chance of withstanding his party's scrutiny when the Legislature convenes, and pointed out that many of the "increases" still leave huge gaps from where funding stood prior to Scott's previous cuts.
“Governor Scott’s education funding proposals deserve a close examination by the Legislature," said House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston (D-Plantation). "But I would hope Floridians understand that even with an additional $1.2 billion in education, Florida would remain about $850 million shy of education spending levels of 2007-08 when there were fewer students in our public schools. In addition, the governor’s proposed $2,500 teacher pay raise is welcome but will still leave Florida’s teachers earning nearly $7,000 a year below the national average teacher salary."
But University of Florida President Bernard Machin praised Scott, saying he'd delivered on everything he'd promised. Universities lost $300 million in last year's budget and have agreed to forgo tuition increases if $118 million was added to the budgets of Florida’s 12 schools, which Scott has included in the proposal.
Scott's budget would finance the mandatory portions of the federal Affordable Care Act, which he has fought since before he was even a candidate for governor, but he remains resistant to expanding Medicaid coverage. Scott had previously announced pay raises for Florida teachers, though fellow Republicans have expressed skepticism over that plan, estimated to cost $480 million. The budget will include per-student funding of $6,800, which the governor's office said was an increase of more than $400.
While crtitics complain that much of the spending is just putting back what had been recklessly stripped, the governor countered by arguing that by cutting spending and strengthening the economy, the state can now spend more and in a responsible manner.
Cost savings in the budget included a net decrease of 3,647 jobs, or 3.1 percent of the state’s workforce. 663 of those jobs were said to be vacant positions. The state workforce has been cut by more than 7 percent since 2010, helping to cut spending, while also driving up unemployment in the state.
The Florida Forever Coalition (Audubon Florida, Defenders of Wildlife, Florida Recreation and Park Association, Florida Wildlife Federation, 1000 Friends of Florida, and the Trust for Public Land) praised the governor's inclusion of $75 million for Florida Forever, the successor of the state’s Preservation 2000 program, which allocates funds for public land acquisition through the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, the water management districts, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Forest Service, and through Florida Community Trust grants to local governments.
“The Governor’s Florida Forever budget recommendation is a positive step forward for Florida. His $75 million recommendation puts Florida Forever back on the right track," said the group in a prepared statement. "With the economy recovering, it is important to allocate funds to preserve our state’s natural areas and protect the places that make Florida special. We look forward to working alongside the Governor this legislative session to advocate for the appropriation of funds for Florida Forever.”
Scott also won praise from two groups focused on social services, which had also fallen under the axe in previous years. In a joint statement by Lauren Book, Founder and CEO of Lauren's Kids and Jennifer Dritt, Executive Director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, the groups said that Scott made a clear priority to support and help heal victims of sexual assault.
"We know the societal costs of untreated childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault is enormous, including poor school performance, mental health problems, failed relationships, inability to hold a job and loss of productivity. Currently, sexual abuse and assault victims wait up to two months for services. This appropriation will allow Florida’s network of rape crisis centers to provide critical counseling and support services immediately. We applaud the Governor’s leadership and vision in addressing this pressing problem and helping victims get the services they so vitally need."
Meanwhile, Scott's spending has earned the ire of conservative budget watchdogs, the same crowd he wooed in his 2010 campaign. Bob Williams, President of State Budget Solutions, a national nonprofit organization that advocates for state budget and pension reform, was highly critical of the proposal.
“Gov. Scott's proposed budget increases state spending by $4 billion, making it the largest budget in Florida’s history," said Williams in a statement. "But even with the excessive spending this budget includes, it fails to pay off its $631 million in unemployment insurance loan from the federal government and doesn’t put a dent in the massive unfunded pension liabilities."
The governor's budget proposal is only a recommendation to the Florida Legislature. Lawmakers will begin working on a budget that they must pass and send to Scott for approval when they convene for their annual session in March.
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