TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who came into office four years ago vowing to cut taxes and spending, on Wednesday proposed an election-year budget that called for just about more of everything.
Scott recommended a nearly $74.2 billion budget that includes more money for schools, a boost in spending on environmental programs and child protection, while at the same time holding the line on college tuition increases.
The Republican governor also set aside nearly $600 million for tax cuts, many of which were aimed at consumers instead of the big ones for businesses that Scott had previously touted to stimulate the economy.
"My goal is 'Let's get money back into Florida families hands, let's continue to build our economy," Scott said.
State lawmakers will use Scott's proposal as a framework for a final budget that will be passed during the annual session that starts in March. House Speaker Will Weatherford called Scott's recommendation a good start and said legislative leaders were largely in agreement with many of the governor's proposals.
Leaders, however, did stop short of endorsing all of Scott's tax-cut proposals. They said that they were willing to cut them by as much as $500 million, but that they had to be targeted to a wide number of Floridians, casting doubt on Scott's push to lower the sales taxes charged on commercial rent.
Some details of the proposal quickly drew criticism, especially since Scott's boost in school spending relies primarily on an increase in local property taxes.
The governor earlier this week announced that he wants to increase spending on public schools by $542 million. But nearly $400 million of the extra money is coming from a rise in property values, which generates additional local property tax money.
Scott, who announced his budget at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by The Associated Press, declined to answer directly questions about the reliance on extra property taxes.
The Scott administration later defended the approach because the governor is not recommending an increase in the tax rate charged to homeowners.
Weatherford said that relying on additional local taxes was appropriate because school funding is split between local school districts and the state. He noted that the state increased its share of funding when property values declined.
"There's always ebbs and flows," Weatherford said. "The way we fund education in the state is a partnership."
Democrats, however, criticized the approach and charged that Scott was engaged in a "shell game." They also said that the budget was full of "election year gimmicks" meant to get Floridians to forget that Scott advocated large cuts to schools when he first became governor in 2011.
"With an election year upon us, we're expecting lots of 'feel good' proposals from the governor, and the budget he released on Wednesday was no exception," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale and the Senate Democratic leader.
Scott's proposal calls for spending slightly less than what was authorized in this year's budget. Scott was able to keep a limit on the total by eliminating vacant positions in state government, as well as other cuts in administrative expenses and shifting money from other state programs.
Scott has previously this month announced many key components of his budget request including increased spending on Everglades restoration, help for the state's beleaguered freshwater springs and extra money to hire more than 400 additional child protection investigators.
He also had outlined most of his tax cut proposals, including his push to roll back auto registration fees for motorists and expanding the state's back-to-school sales tax holiday.
Some of the additional budget highlights include:
— $167 million to pay for bonuses instead of pay raises for state employees. The bonuses of $5,000 and $2,500 would go to employees who receive good evaluations.
— A proposal to require all state workers to pay the same for health insurance. High-ranking employees, including Scott, pay only $8.34 a month in premiums for individual coverage and $30 for family coverage. Scott wants to raise that $50 a month for individuals and $180 a month for family coverage.
—College and university tuition rates would remain unchanged.
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