TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida's continued economic recovery is giving state legislators a reprieve from years of budget battles and a way to boost the election-year fortunes of Gov. Rick Scott.
As unemployment has dropped and consumer spending has risen, the Republican-controlled Legislature has gained a budget surplus expected to be more than $1 billion to work with when the annual session starts next week.
Scott has made clear how he wants a big chunk of that surplus spent.
He has rolled out a series of proposals to cut taxes and fees by nearly $600 million. Many of them would return money directly to consumers — a contrast to his previous tax cut proposals aimed primarily at corporations and businesses.
The biggest item on Scott's list is a rollback of auto registration fees raised when former Gov. Charlie Crist was in office and the state's economy was in a near freefall.
Despite the hefty price tag, legislative leaders have backed Scott.
"Everyone understands it's important to return some of the additional revenue to our constituents," said Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and Senate budget chief.
Legislators may wind up tweaking individual portions of the tax and fee cuts offered by Scott, but they insist they will approve a package worth a half-billion dollars.
House budget chief Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, said assuming that legislators are backing Scott's proposals just to help get him re-elected is wrong.
"I want the governor to be re-elected," McKeel said. "But we also have a whole lot of House members running for re-election. We have a whole lot of senators running for re-election. Clearly, election year dynamics are at play throughout the building."
Scott has done more than ask for tax and fee cuts. He also has asked that legislators hold the line on college tuition rates and recommended a $74.2 billion budget that calls for additional spending in a wide range of areas, including child protection investigation, Everglades restoration and providing help for the state's beleaguered freshwater springs.
Splits are already emerging over some of Scott's spending proposals.
Democrats are questioning whether or not the budget will do enough to restore the cuts that occurred when the Great Recession hammered state revenues.
"I feel there's a tremendous amount of unmet needs that do not appear to be on the priority list," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "I think overall the budget is going to leave a lot of people behind."
A coalition of groups — including homebuilders and the Florida Chamber of Commerce — complained earlier this week about a recommendation by Scott to sweep nearly $300 million out of a fund normally used to pay for affordable housing programs. The Scott administration has argued that extra money was set aside last year and that funding wasn't needed.
Ron Lieberman, president of the Florida Home Builders Association, contended that the state needs to keep spending money on affordable housing programs to keep the state's economic recovery going. He said that working-class Floridians need help because they can't afford to live in high-end homes.
Scott's request that legislators boost the budget of the Department of Children and Families by nearly $32 million may get some resistance as well.
"While DCF has made significant changes to protect children, we still have much to do to protect the most vulnerable among us," Scott said Thursday during a visit to child protection investigators in West Palm Beach. "Even one child death is a death too many."
But Negron said legislators have put more money in recent years in DCF's budget. He questioned whether the extra funding would result in a reduction in child abuse deaths.
"We want to do everything we can to prevent criminal acts against children," Negron said. "The only person responsible for the abuse and killing of children is the actual perpetrator. Let's not blame a state agency when an evil person commits an atrocity against a child."
There also could be a tug-of-war between the House and Senate about the right level of funding for springs restoration and projects to help clean up the Indian River Lagoon.
"I think it's too early to tell how that will end up," Negron said about spending for environmental programs.
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