Florida Gov. Rick Scott, surrounded by rows of machines and dozens of manufacturing employees, on Monday announced a nearly $79.3 billion spending plan for the coming year that is heavy on tax cuts and help for businesses.
Scott, the private businessman who turned politician five years ago, opted to release his annual budget recommendations away from the state Capitol. He instead rolled them out on the premises of Harbinger Sign, a 70-employee private company in south Jacksonville that makes commercial signs for customers across the country.
In an event that harkened back to Scott's own re-election campaign, it was a reminder that Scott may have to sell a reluctant Florida Legislature on his budget proposal and especially his plan to cut taxes by $1 billion. But Scott insisted that his budget proposal, which includes $250 million for corporate incentives to lure new businesses, would help the state diversify its economy in advance of the next economic downturn.
"With these investments we are going to get more jobs,'' Scott said. "We have the money to be able to do these things.''
Pointing to Harbinger officials, Scott added that it would help the sign company and other small businesses.
"When they buy more equipment, they will spend that money to add more jobs,'' Scott said.
The governor released his budget recommendations in late November because legislators will start work on a new state budget in January. The debate over the budget is already shaping up to be one of the main flashpoints of the 60-day session.
Scott insists that the state has enough money to pay for his budget proposals, even though his math is at odds with the state's economists who say that legislators will have considerably less to spend if they want to maintain the same levels of spending throughout all areas in state government. Some Republicans in the Legislature have already expressed skepticism at the size of the tax cut package and the added money for corporate incentives.
Scott's overall budget does boost spending on public schools by 2.5 percent, but $427 million of that extra money would come from a rise in property taxes due to rising property values. Past Republicans in state government, including current U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, have labeled this a tax hike.
Scott, however, brushed aside questions about it.
"Property values, when they go up, that's good for us,'' Scott said.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican and House budget chief, said that he's supportive of Scott's request despite the cost attached to it.
"I love his tax cut package,'' Corcoran said.
But Corcoran did acknowledge that some legislators were questioning the reliance on increased property taxes to pay for the boost in school spending. He said "a lot of members want to take a hard look'' at that part of Scott's proposal.
Rep. Mark Pafford, the House Democratic leader, blasted Scott's budget and said the governor has the wrong priorities.
"His budget proposals continue to show that he cares a lot more about corporations than he does the people of Florida,'' said Pafford.
Scott's budget also calls for cuts in other parts of the state budget and would eliminate nearly 1,000 state worker jobs.
Scott is not recommending any across-the-board pay raises for state employees, but instead wants permission to put in place a performance bonus system. The governor is calling for a 10 percent hike for crime lab analysts, but he rejected a request by Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam to boost the pay of state firefighters. Scott last summer vetoed a pay hike for the firefighters passed by the Legislature.
"With a starting salary of $24,000 per year, our firefighters are at least as deserving as those who got pay increases last year and those who have pay increases included in the budget this year,'' Putnam said in a statement.
For the sixth year in a row Scott has proposed that all state employees pay the same amount for health insurance. Currently roughly 30,000 employees, including Scott and many of his top aides, pay $8.34 a month for individual coverage and $30 a month for family coverage. Rank-and-file state workers pay $50 a month for individual coverage and $180 per month for family coverage.