Rick Scott’s $65.9 billion proposed budget drew reviews Tuesday ranging from tepid to downright mean as legislative committees dominated by fellow Republicans got their first look at the new governor’s first spending proposal.
House education, transportation and health care panels grilled Scott budget office staff dispatched to present portions of the budget rolled out Monday by the state’s chief executive at a Tea Party rally in Central Florida. For many lawmakers, the staff outlines were their initial look at the plan, with several pointing out the difficulties they faced in viewing a Web posting that has proved impossible to fully access for two consecutive days.
For a governor elevated by a campaign theme of ‘let’s get to work,’ his difficulties in conquering the Internet may pale against getting a wary Legislature to sign-off on his self-described ‘jobs’ budget.
Lawmakers who usually refuse to endorse even their own budget plans until they view county-by-county education financing, voiced deep concerns about Scott’s plan to slice per-pupil school spending by an average of at least $298 – part of an overall $3.3 billion cut to education spending.
A health care panel later held Scott’s budget up to the light, with lawmakers from both parties challenging his push to privatize three state mental hospitals and Florida’s half-dozen veterans' nursing homes, with local governments left to pick up services the state would no longer perform.
Jane Johnson, policy coordinator for Scott’s budget office, defended the governor’s spending choices saying, “government can’t do everything in the Health and Human Services sector that we would like it to do.”
But Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, said Scott’s approach will likely lead to thousands of Floridians losing health and social services completely, since local governments are in no position to close the gap.
“Do you realize that at the local level there’s not going to be any funds for some of the services you say need to be funded at the local level?” said Davis, who until his election last fall served seven years on the Jacksonville City Council. “We need to be honest with ourselves and the local community.”
Scott budget officials are saying that the loss of federal stimulus dollars will result in that $298-per-student cut if expected pension savings are ploughed back into education and if school districts socked aside some federal jobs-fund money that the Scott administration said could be used. But if pension savings aren’t realized, or the jobs money wasn’t reserved, some counties could lop off as much as $700 per student, a dramatic 10 percent cut.
Even Republicans blanched at that.
Rep. Marti Coley, chairwoman of the House PreK-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said lawmakers have known they’d have to make cuts with the end of the stimulus that has bailed them out for the last couple of years.
But “10 percent is pretty steep,” said Coley, R-Marianna. “So we will consider his proposals and we will make our own proposals, as well.”
Democrats were more blunt.
“He’s a new governor and he’s new at a lot of this, and I hope that as he matures as governor he starts getting a better understanding of how important it is to provide our children with the best and most fully funded education possible,” said Rep. Marty Kiar, D-Davie.
Scott staffers generally stood their ground under the tough questioning from lawmakers. Johnson, of the budget office, began her remarks by pointing out that “there were no sacred cows,” in the governor’s approach to spending.
The governor’s iconoclastic view of budgeting has led him to recommend cutting 8,681 state jobs, draining $8.5 billion from 124 state trust funds for use across all areas of government, while also laying the groundwork for a 2012-13 spending plan that’s even smaller -- $63.3 billion.
About $1.7 billion in tax cuts also would be handed out – part of a $4.1 billion, two-year reduction that also leaves about $700 million in reserves next year. Part of the 2012-13 budget trimming will be powered by an anticipated $1.2 billion reduction in Medicaid spending – savings earned by pushing Florida’s 2.7 million Medicaid recipients into managed care programs that Scott and lawmakers would still have to design and win approval for from the federal government.
“This is basically a visionary budget,” Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Port St. Lucie, told Johnson. “You envision these reductions occurring.”
Few budget areas were spared Scott’s cutting. But just as the governor beefed up economic development efforts – spending $800 million over two years – Scott was relatively generous toward transportation efforts, a potential job-creator.
Overall transportation spending would drop from just under $10 billion this year to $9.3 billion next year and then just under $8.8 billion the next year. But it allows the state’s five-year work program to remain fully funded for the next two years – drawing some of the few words of praise Tuesday for Scott’s budget.
“By investing additional dollars in economic development, by preserving the transportation trust fund, I think (that) shows that he's got an interest in job creation,” said Rep. Mike Horner, R-Kissimmee, chairman of the House Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Subcommittee.
Horner, however, was concerned about Scott’s proposal to eliminate nearly 40 highway patrol positions, because it could cost the state revenue, and maybe even lives.
"I think we need to be aware of the impact that these recommendations might have on the street, that's my concern," Horner said. "The rationale given was that the good news is that traffic fatalities are way down in Florida. We've done a great job. I think we need to be careful that we continue that path.”
Scott has also proposed to roll back about $235 million in increased driver fees that lawmakers used to prop up the sagging state budget two years ago. Horner conceded that the fee hikes have proved unpopular, but he said lawmakers are wary about committing to reducing them while struggling to close a budget shortfall of at least $3.6 billion.
Keith Laing and Kathleen Haughney of the News Service contributed to this report.