TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Heading into his final year in office and a likely U.S. Senate campaign, Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed a nearly $87.4 billion budget on Tuesday that calls for spending more on nearly everything from schools to the environment.
The Republican governor's last budget, which will be considered in January by state legislators, is a far cry from his first year in office when he called for slashing state spending by $5 billion and cutting taxes by nearly $2 billion. Scott's final budget calls for roughly $2.4 billion more in spending over this year, although part of that increase is tied to expenses from Hurricane Irma and higher costs with Medicaid.
Citing what he called a "booming" economy in the state, Scott repeatedly called his latest budget "historic" and ticked off a long list of items that he pledged to steer more money into: Schools, beach restoration, the state's opioid crisis, housing programs to help victims from Irma, and paying the full tuition costs of Florida residents who qualify the state's Bright Futures scholarship program.
"Over the last seven years I've listened to Florida families and I know what they care about," Scott said about his budget during a visit to a Jacksonville tool store.
Scott, who swept into office with the strong support of the tea party movement, is leaving office in early 2019 due to term limits. He is widely expected to challenge Democratic incumbent U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
He has championed tax cuts every year, but in his final budget he recommended a modest amount of nearly $180 million, with all of it geared directly to residents instead of businesses through sales tax holidays where taxes would be waived on school clothes and hurricane supplies.
The governor also wants to boost the amount spent on each public school student by nearly 3 percent, or $200 more a year and he is advocating an $100 increase to each teacher to help pay for school supplies.
Scott did draw the line in some areas: He did not recommend across-the-board pay raises for state workers, opting instead to offer pay raises to law enforcement officers, state firefighters and juvenile detention and probation officers. He also said he would stick to a pay-as-you-go approach for new buildings for schools, colleges and universities despite a long list of requested projects.
GOP legislative leaders, who feuded openly with Scott at the start of this year, offered a relatively measured approach on the governor's final set of recommendations even though they include some flashpoints that forced legislators into a special session this past summer.
"The governor's budget is very promising," said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican and budget chairman.
Scott wants to use a rise in local property values to help pay for his boost in school spending, a move that House leaders have criticized in the past as a tax increase. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, however, said he "appreciated" his recommendations and that they would work "with him to do what is right for Florida taxpayers."
Democrats, however, ripped apart Scott's final budget as an effort to paper over past proposals that called for large cuts to schools and required layoffs of state workers.
"Now that he's apparently a candidate again, but in a different political climate, we get a proposal that seeks to hide all the harm he has already caused," said Rep. Janet Cruz, the House Democratic leader from Tampa. "There's only one person politician Rick Scott is looking out for and it's not the everyday Floridian."
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