Critics deride Gov. Rick Scott’s proposed $74.2 billion budget as a pandering re-election bid aimed at making Floridians forget his spending plans that slashed funding for education, social services and the environment.
There is no doubt politics played a role in the governor’s choices, but so did state finances. Scott confronted budget shortfalls when he took office. This year the state should have a surplus of $1 billion.
But we think there is something else involved in the governor looking to invest more in schools, water quality and child protection. When he was elected, Scott, a relative newcomer to Florida, seemed driven solely by his small-government ideology and his pledge to run government as a business.
He showed little appreciation for the history or needs of Florida. That, it seems to us, has gradually changed during his tenure. He seems driven more by the reality of Florida than preconceived ideology.
Scott, who cavalierly dismissed the state’s water safeguards, now has become a big supporter of Everglades cleanup and proposes to spend $55 million to clean up polluted springs.
Similarly, Scott, who showed little interest in preserving the state’s natural treasures, now would allocate $100 million to land conservation.
Many, including us, may not think those amounts are enough, but they represent a significant investment and indicate that the governor has a better understanding for the environmental threats to his adopted state.
Scott was rightly criticized for slashing school funding by $1 billion his first year, but he responded to the public’s outcry and quickly reversed course. He proposed $1 billion in education funding increases the next two years. This budget seeks an additional $542 million for schools, hardly chump change.
It is curious he is being faulted because most of that will come from local property taxes due to the increase in land values. So what? Scott is hardly the first politician to claim credit for developments largely outside his control. Would critics have preferred the increase come from a tax hike?
In other areas, the governor’s funding recommendations appeared based on pressing needs. His budget would shore up the beleaguered Department of Children & Families, spending $32 million to hire 447 child-protection workers. He wants to invest $80 million in cancer research, which would help Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center and other state institutions develop more effective treatments for the disease and also help land federal grants and create jobs.
Despite such strategic investments, the budget holds the line on spending — it’s a fraction less than the current budget — and would provide $570 million in recurring tax reductions, the bulk coming from reducing the much-detested 2009 auto tag fee increases. Scott’s proposal would reduce the fees by an average of $25.
The governor’s greatest strength is his understanding of business needs and economic development. And this budget seeks to aid businesses by proposing a $100 million cut on the sales tax on business rents.
Making it more affordable for businesses to lease space, as Scott says, should help them to invest in Florida and create jobs. Such tax cuts make sense.
Another $69 million in non-recurring tax cuts would come from 15-day sales-tax holidays for both school items and hurricane preparedness supplies.
We find such tax cuts gimmicky, but the governor cannot be blamed for embracing a practice that is popular with the public and merchants, though 15 days, it seems to us, is excessive.
The governor wisely recommends increasing Visit Florida’s budget by $36.5 million to $100 million. Florida TaxWatch, an independent government watchdog, says such an investment could enable Florida to attract 100 million visitors to the state, which would create an estimated 121,298 jobs.
Scott’s budget is hardly perfect, but it seems driven by practical concerns for Florida’s needs and finances.
When Scott was elected he had a lot to learn about Florida. He still does. But his budget proposal indicates he is learning.