TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday rolled out an election-year budget that calls for increased spending on schools, the environment, and child protection while at the same time cutting nearly $600 million in taxes.
But some of the details of the budget quickly drew criticism especially since Scott's boost in school spending relies primarily on an increase in local property taxes.
The Republican governor announced his spending plan on Wednesday during the annual legislative planning meeting hosted by The Associated Press.
State lawmakers will use the nearly $74.2 billion proposed budget as a framework for a final budget that will be passed during the annual session that starts in March. House Speaker Will Weatherford called Scott's recommendation a good start and said legislative leaders were largely in agreement with many of the governor's proposals.
Scott's proposal calls for spending slightly less than what was authorized in this year's budget. Scott was able to keep a limit on the total by eliminating vacant positions in state government, as well as other cuts in administrative expenses and shifting money from other state programs.
"We are on the rebound. More revenue does not mean we should grow government," Scott said. "Instead, we should grow our businesses. We should grow the hopes and dreams of Florida families. Three years ago, we got to work to turn our state around, and with another $500 million in tax cuts we will keep working to make Florida the number one destination for opportunity in the world."
Scott's earlier this week announced that he wants to increase spending on public schools by $542 million. But nearly $400 million of the extra money is coming from a rise in property values, which generates additional local property tax money.
The Scott administration defended the approach because the governor is not recommending an increase in the property tax rate charged to homeowners. Weatherford said that relying on additional local taxes was appropriate because school funding is a "partnership" between local school districts and the state.
But Rep. Perry Thurston, the House Democratic leader, criticized the approach.
"After cutting education by more than $1 billion in his first year of office, this year's spending plan appears to be another education shell game that relies on property tax increases," Thurston said. "Working families deserve priority attention in Florida's next state budget - not the election year gimmicks that Gov. Scott is offering."
Scott has previously this month announced many key components of his budget request including increased spending on Everglades restoration, help for the state's beleaguered freshwater springs and extra money to hire more than 400 additional child protection investigators.
Some of the additional budget highlights include:
Scott did not propose any pay raises for state employees, but recommended bonuses for employees who receive good evaluations.
Scott wants to keep tuition rates flat for state colleges and universities. Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz said they supported keeping tuition rates unchanged.
Scott is recommending for the fourth straight year that all state workers pay the same for health insurance. High-ranking employees, including Scott, pay only $8.34 a month in premiums for individual coverage and $30 for family coverage. Scott wants to raise that $50 a month for individuals and $180 a month for family coverage.
The governor has also proposed tax cuts that include a back-to-school sales tax holiday, a rollback in auto registration fees, as well as a cut in the sales tax charged on commercial rent.
Legislative leaders said they supported cutting taxes and fees by $500 million, but they stopped short of endorsing all of Scott's tax cut proposals. Gaetz said he wanted to back what he called "broad based" tax cuts that would reach a large amount of people.
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