TALLAHASSEE, FL -- Lawmakers got their first crack at Gov. Rick Scott's proposed $79.3 billion budget --- and the attached $1 billion tax cut --- on Tuesday, with critics zeroing in on the source of a large chunk of record education funding.
Most of the carping came from Democrats, who have relatively little power in either chamber to shape the broad contours of the spending plan. But there was also some griping from Republicans, notably about the absence of a permanent pay raise for state employees.
Scott has touted his new budget as an opportunity to slash taxes, mostly for businesses, and boost per-student spending on K-12 education to the highest level in state history. But some lawmakers highlighted Tuesday that the majority of the increased funding for education would come from local property tax dollars that are a part of the state's school-spending formula.
Of $507.3 million, only $80 million would come from the state. Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, said during a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee that the numbers showed Scott's attempt to take credit for the increase "a bit of a charade." And she pointed out that it meant local taxpayers would be shelling out more, though the Scott administration has taken great lengths to avoid calling it a tax hike.
"At what point is an increase on your property-tax bill not considered a property-tax increase?" Cruz asked.
House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, contrasted the way property taxes were being treated with Scott's proposal to cut millions of dollars in revenue elsewhere, including a reduction to the corporate-income tax that would cost $770 million when fully phased in.
"How do I go back to my district if the governor's budget is passed the way it is and rationalize those extra dollars from that local base ... offsetting the budget and providing an ability to provide corporate welfare, in my opinion, to these large corporations?" he asked.
Speaking to reporters after a separate meeting of the House Finance & Tax Committee --- where Scott made a rare appearance to promote his tax-cut ideas --- the governor defended his proposals. Scott stressed that the millage rate for property taxes would remain flat, though rising home values would increase the bills property owners have to pay.
"For a long time, we've left the millage rate where it is," Scott said. "When prices go up, that's a positive. People like to see their home prices go up."
Finance & Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican who has proposed getting rid of property taxes, also defended the governor.
"If you look at home values, when home values rise, that means people are doing better in Florida, so there's more of a capacity then to have those dollars allocated to education," Gaetz said.
Republicans were largely quiet about any complaints they had about Scott's budget --- particularly in the House, where the governor's proposals generally get a slightly warmer welcome than in the Senate. The Senate Appropriations Committee will take its first look at the plan on Wednesday.
But a couple of GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee appeared to struggle with Scott's decision to leave out a permanent pay increase for state workers, opting instead for a bonus system that could award employees up to $1,500. Scott also left out a pay raise for state firefighters, which has been a priority of Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
"I'm not saying we have to go out and sell the farm, but if you don't have cost-of-living increases, you're really giving your employees less purchasing power," said Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.
Scott's budget director, Cynthia Kelly, said the governor thought the bonus plan would help with government efficiency and that he was looking to add it to state law so it would remain in place after the current budget.
"The governor has strong feelings in this area and believes that the performance-based pay adjustments are preferred rather than an across-the-board pay increase," Kelly said.