By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., May 3 (Reuters) - Florida legislators, following a trend among states bouncing back from the national recession, adopted a record $74.5 billion spending plan on Friday and adjourned their 2013 lawmaking session.
"While it's true that our spending did go up, we have held $2.8 billion in reserve, we paid back a $300 million loan and we are spending $500 million for our state pension plan," Republican Joe Negron, told the Senate moments before the unanimous vote approving the plan.
Florida's budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 will be more than $4 billion higher than the current year's spending. Republican Governor Rick Scott, who cut spending in each of his first two legislative sessions, recommended increases this year because for the first time since 2008 state economists forecast increased tax collections.
Scott insisted on pumping more than $1 billion into education and sought $2,500 across-the-board pay raises for school teachers. The Legislature added $300 million, putting back a cut at the university level made last year, and came up with a plan that ties teacher pay raises to performance - $2,500 for those rated as effective and $3,500 for teachers evaluated as highly effective.
Amy Baker, coordinator of the state Revenue Estimating Conference, said general revenue collations are projected to increase by $1.1 billion, or 4.5 percent, in the coming year.
She said 81.1 percent of that comes from the state's 6 percent sales tax, with another 18.8 percent of the increase in revenue from the stamp tax on real estate activities, and other sources.
Baker said the balance brought forward next summer also will be up by $1.2 billion from last year. Coupled with normal growth through population growth and employment gains brings the total new revenue to $3.5 billion.
Standards & Poor's Rating Service reported this week that state governments across the nation are showing unexpectedly strong gains from both income and sales taxes. Florida does not have a state income tax so the core of its revenue sources has always been the consumer-borne sales tax.
With more to spend, legislators put some pork in the budget, including $1 million for a Bay of Pigs Museum in Miami, commemorating the botched 1961 invasion of Cuba.
"It's something everyone in the Miami delegation likes," said Miami Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.
But one special project conspicuously absent was funding for a renovation of the Miami Dolphins' stadium, which died despite a heavy lobbying effort by the National Football League team, which is owned by billionaire Stephen Ross.
Scott, who has a line-item veto to extract what he dislikes from the budget, served notice on legislators that he will be going over their pet projects with a critical eye, red-lining those he finds lacking in statewide value.
While Scott got most of what he wanted in the budget as well as some other pieces of legislation, the state's 2013 session will be remembered for one key item he backed that died.
Legislators spurned Scott's political gamble on extending the state's Medicaid program to about 1.3 million poor people, as part of the federally funded Affordable Care Act.
Scott built his political career fighting President Barack Obama's national healthcare plan and his Feb. 20 reversal on Medicaid caused a bitter backlash among Tea Party activists who supported him in 2010.
The Senate compromised, seeking to accept an estimated $50 billion in federal funding in the next decade for expanding Medicaid. But House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican, adamantly refused to rely on federal funding, which he said can evaporate if Congress changes its mind, so Scott's plan fizzled.
Democrats, outnumbered 76-44 in the House and 26-14 in the Senate, tried to get Scott's plan accepted but were powerless to do so. House Democrats have appealed to Scott to call legislators back into special session to pass the expansion but he has yet to make his intentions clear.
Doctored Newspaper Front Page
Florida Governor Rick Scott's Facebook managers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/11/rick-scott-facebook_n_1417499.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">posted an image containing a doctored <em>Miami Herald </em>headline</a>, prompting the paper's managing editor to demand it be removed. The post, since deleted from the Governor's social media page, swapped in the headline "New Law Helps Put Floridians Back To Work" in place of the paper's original headline from 2007, "Murders Highlight Rise In Crime In Guatemala" -- making it appear an editorial from the governor had run above the fold on the <em>Herald</em>'s front page.
Non-Transparent Transparency Program
After Florida Governor Rick Scott encouraged journalists to access his emails through his transparency program Project Sunburst in lieu of filing public records requests,<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/31/rick-scott-emails-omitted-project-sunburst_n_1723747.html" target="_hplink"> it was revealed that emails to his official email account weren't in fact included</a> -- Project Sunburst was only displaying emails sent to a second account that appears on Florida Tea Party websites. As a result at least one news report included a positively-skewed view of Scott after his Lt. Governor made anti-gay comments.
"Prayers" In Public Schools
Scott approved <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/01/florida-house-inspirational-messages-bill-approved_n_1313368.html" target="_hplink">SB 98, which means that Florida students are now allowed to deliver "inspirational messages" </a>that include everything from prayers to manifestos at mandatory school events.
Refuses Affordable Care Act
In a statement, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/01/florida-health-care-law_n_1641990.html?utm_hp_ref=miami&ir=Miami" target="_hplink">the governor said the healthcare law would not aid</a> economic growth in his state "and since Florida is legally allowed to opt out, that's the right decision for our citizens."
Scott met with King Juan Carlos of Spain during his economic development mission and immediately managed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/rick-scott-king-of-spain-elephant_n_1542066.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">to bring up the uncomfortable topic of the monarch's disastrous elephant hunting trip to Botswana</a>.
Ads On State Trails
In the midst of old-growth live oak hammocks, wild orchids, and vistas of Lakes Wales Ridge in Lake Kissimmee State Park, Florida hikers may soon see signs boasting "Buster Island Loop, brought to you by Pollo Tropical." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/09/rock-scott-ads-state-trails_n_1502972.html" target="_hplink">Governor Rick Scott approved a bill </a>permitting advertising on state greenways and trails, which went into effect July 1, 2012.
The Governor is in a legal battle with the U.S. Justice Department over the state's <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/26/rick-scott-florida-governor-voter-list_n_1628607.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">effort to remove non-U.S. citizens from lists of registered voters </a>ahead of this year's presidential election. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Reverses Ban On Dying Animals Artificial Colors
Just before Easter, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/07/rick-scott-approves-artif_n_1409749.html" target="_hplink">Florida Governor Rick Scott approved an agricultural bill, which permits animals to be dyed neon green and dayglo pink</a>.
Random Drug Testing
The governor passed <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/27/drug-testing-florida-state-workers-lawmakers_n_1300331.html" target="_hplink">a law permitting state agencies to randomly drug test employees every 3 months</a>.
49,000 Voters Discouraged From Polls
Florida took center stage in the 2012 elections, when voters around the state had to wait in line at the polls for up to nine hours. Gov. Rick Scott (R) initially denied that there was any problem, saying it was "very good" that people were getting out to vote. But a new study shows that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/rick-scott-not-favored-by_n_2328614.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">tens of thousands of people were actually discouraged from voting because of the long lines</a>. According to an analysis by Theodore Allen, an associate professor of industrial engineering at Ohio State University, as many as 49,000 individuals in Central Florida did not vote because of the problems at the polls.
Dismal Approval Rating -- Even Amongst GOP
Most Florida voters, including Republicans, would like to see Gov. Rick Scott (R) challenged in 2014, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/19/rick-scott-not-favored-by_n_2328614.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">according to a poll released by Quinnipiac University</a>. More than half of voters said Scott didn't deserve a second term, and 55 percent, including 53 percent of Republicans, wanted another candidate to challenge the governor in a primary. Scott's approval ratings, though improved from 2011, were also underwater.
Cost Taxpayers $1 Million In Legal Fees
Governor Rick Scott's long list of controversial legislation -- including tweaking the state's pension plans, require drug testing of those on welfare, cutting teachers' pay, and purging voters -- may have cost Florida taxpayers <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/31/rick-scott-costs-florida-_n_2388780.html" target="_hplink">upwards of $1 million in legal bills</a>. The latest legal bill tallies at $190,000 after a federal court ruled that Florida has to pay the attorney fees as Scott fights for the right to drug test state workers. The Orlando Sentinel found that Scott has already cost taxpayers nearly $900,000 in attorney fees as he fights for his conversational legislation, making this latest legal bill tilt the tally over $1 million.
First-Time Drug Offenders
Florida Governor Rick Scott <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/10/gov-rick-scott-vetoes-bil_n_1414758.html">vetoed a widely popular bill that would send certain non-violent drug addicts to treatment after serving half their sentences</a>. “He said it was a 'public safety’ issue. No it’s not,” said bill sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff (R-Fort Lauderdale) according to the Miami Herald. “These are non-violent drug offenders.” The bill, a rare common sense favorite during a legislative season that saw Scott approve dying animals and Jay-Z lyrics debated on the House floor, was opposed by only four state lawmakers.
Docs. vs. Glocks
Gov. Scott <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/30/docs-vs-glocks-appeal-ric_n_1720370.html">pushed back when a federal judge ruled</a> a law gagging Florida physicians from asking patients if they owned guns unconstitutional. U.S. District Court Judge cited the government-imposed gag order as a violation of free speech protection under the First Amendment.
Campaign finance reports show Florida Governor Rick Scott -- who framed recent evidence-defying efforts to purge state voter rolls, limit registration and reduce early voting hours as a protection of "honest" elections -- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/17/rick-scott-hired-boletera-boletero_n_1890552.html">hired an alleged Miami-Dade absentee ballot broker during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign</a>. Scott's campaign paid a $5,000 "contract labor" fee to 74-year-old Hialeah resident Emelina Llanes, who was identified as a so-called boletera to the Miami Herald and by El Nuevo Herald, multiple Miami-Dade watchdog blogs, and former Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños.
Closes TB Hospital
In an austerity measure, Florida Gov. Rick Scott and state representatives <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/09/florida-tuberculosis-outbreak-kept-secret_n_1658916.html">voted to close A.G. Holley State Hospital in Palm Beach County, the state's only tuberculosis hospital</a>, citing a decline in Florida TB cases since 2010. But according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Florida was suffering one of the largest uncontained TB outbreaks in 20 years -- and the largest spike nationwide -- resulting in 13 deaths and 99 illnesses, mostly among the homeless.
Gives Out Number For Sex Hotline
Florida governor Rick Scott <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/10/rick-scott-phone-sex-hotline-meningitis_n_1954060.html">accidentally sent constituents seeking information on a fungal meningitis outbreak to a phone sex hotline</a>.
Vetoed Funding For Mass Animal Deaths Research
The Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University was counting on $2 million in state funds to study the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/20/indian-river-lagoon_n_3472190.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">dead pelicans, manatees, and dolphins piling up at Indian River Lagoon, described as a 'killing zone</a>.' Scott vetoed the funding.
Sped Up Death Penalty
Scott <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/06/18/death-penalty_n_3459048.html?utm_hp_ref=rick-scott" target="_hplink">signed a law that will speed up Florida's execution process</a>. The governor now must sign a death warrant within 30 days of the Supreme Court certifying that an inmate has exhausted all appeals. The execution date must be six months from the date of the warrant.