State budge surplus nears $1 billion
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The surplus for next year's state budget is nearing $1 billion, giving lawmakers more room to bankroll their priorities as well as Gov. Rick Scott's call for additional tax cuts and record per-student school funding.
At a meeting Monday, state economists added $622 million to the total available for Scott to use when he proposes his spending plan for the coming budget year, which begins July 1. That would be in addition to the approximately $336 million surplus that had been projected earlier.
The new numbers come with some caveats. Since the earlier projections, there are increased spending needs in some areas of the budget, though projected spending in other areas has been reduced. And economists will meet to predict whether a few other areas of the budget might demand more or less money in the future.
Scott, who won re-election in November based in part on the strength of the state's economic recovery, wasted no time pushing for the extra money to be devoted to his priorities.
"Because we are creating an environment where our private sector can succeed, our economy is growing which makes it possible for us to invest in areas important to Florida families," Scott said. "I look forward to working with the Legislature to continue to cut taxes by $1 billion over the next two years and increase K-12 per pupil funding to the highest level in our state's history this coming year."
During his campaign, Scott pledged to increase spending on public schools to $7,176 a student --- about a $50 increase over the previous high-water mark, which happened in the 2007-08 budget year. Critics like the campaign of former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott's rival in November, said the proposal wasn't as generous for schools when inflation was factored in.
Legislative leaders were more measured than Scott about spending the extra money.
"While it appears we will once again see a budget surplus in the upcoming fiscal year, it is important we don't forget the principles that brought us here," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement issued by his office. "We will continue our commitment to fiscal responsibility with every dollar as we prioritize funding initiatives and seek ways to continue tax relief for Florida's families."
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, called the forecast "great news" but was also careful.
"There is no shortage of ideas for how this slight increase in available general revenue could be spent," he said. "While today's news gives my Senate colleagues and I reason to approach the 2015-16 fiscal year with cautious optimism, our challenge is to remain vigilant and responsibly plan for Florida's future."
The increased estimates were in the state's general revenue, which plays a key role in funding education, health care and prisons. That revenue is made up of sources such as sales taxes.
Economists said some of the growth in sales taxes --- a vital revenue source for the state --- was helped by lower gas prices, which would allow consumers to use their money elsewhere.
"Our belief is that most people will view that not as a permanent change but as a temporary change, like a windfall, and that they would spend it in taxable sales purchases," said Amy Baker, the Legislature's chief economist. "So they might spend a little bit more on Christmas, they might feel more comfortable making some other one-time purchases."
Baker said the economists believe that gas prices will continue to be lower in future years than originally predicted, though they might tick up slightly from the current prices. She also said the conference Monday agreed to throttle back slightly on the growth of the housing market in some future years, but that stronger-than-expected growth in recent months would essentially make up for the difference.
BRANDON LARRABEE THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA