Gov. Scott Still Wants Tax Cuts, School-Funding Increase
Florida Gov. Rick Scott resumed his push Wednesday for a massive tax-cut package and a “historic” increase in school funding, downplaying a call for agency heads to prepare for a bare-bones budget.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll have a good special session,” Scott said when asked about the state having to scale down to its critical needs if lawmakers fail to hammer out a budget before July 1.
Though the House and Senate continue to have a sizable divide over health-care funding as they head into next month’s special session, at least some lawmakers appear to want to please the governor when it comes to tax cuts. Scott proposed a $673 million tax-cut package early this year, and the House later offered a $690 million plan.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said tax cuts will be “a priority” for the upcoming session.
“The Finance and Tax Committee will be tasked to come up with a bill to reflect the Legislature’s new joint budget number, which has not yet been determined,” Crisafulli said in an email Wednesday.
The Senate remains a little more guarded as Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, continues to work with his chamber to draft a schedule for the session that begins June 1. Senate leaders did not offer a full tax-cut package during this spring’s regular session, though Senate committees advanced individual tax-cut bills.
“The question has been how to balance a desire to reduce taxes against other priorities, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding health care funding,” Katie Betta, Gardiner’s spokeswoman, said in an email Wednesday.
The Senate has proposed spending $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid money to help hundreds of thousands of lower-income Floridians purchase private insurance.
Senate leaders argue that could help in negotiations with the federal officials over the future of the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool, or LIP, program. LIP mostly sends money to hospitals and other health providers that care for large numbers of low-income residents. The LIP program is scheduled to expire June 30, unless federal official approve an extension.
Scott has joined the House in fiercely opposing any health-care expansion funded through the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.
Scott deflected questions Wednesday when asked if he’d threatened to veto a budget that fails to include his top session priorities. When pressed, Scott repeated that the House and Senate are aware of his priorities, which include higher per-student funding for public schools. His tax-cut plan is dominated by a proposed reduction in the communications-services tax on cell-phone and pay-TV bills.
“I want to continue what I’ve done every session, which is to work with the House and Senate to work on the problems of our state,” Scott told reporters in Tallahassee. “They know my priorities.”
Scott’s statement is less pessimistic than the outlook he offered when interviewed May 10 on FOX News. During that interview, he said the tax-cut package and proposed increase in education funding could be in jeopardy if the health-care battle kept the Legislature from completing a budget by June 30.
“We won’t put more money into schools, which I wanted to do,” Scott said during the FOX News interview. “We won’t cut taxes, which I wanted to do. We’ll just leave the money there and deal with it in our next session, which starts in January.”
Since then, budget leaders from the House and Senate started meeting to discuss the special session. On Friday, House and Senate leaders formally called the session, which could last from June 1 to June 20.
During this spring’s regular session, the House voted 112-3 to approve its tax-cut package. The package included Scott’s call for a 3.6 percentage-point reduction in the communications-services tax, totaling about $470 million in cuts.
The House proposal would have also eliminated sales taxes on college textbooks and made a series of other tax cuts, including reducing a tax on commercial-real estate leases from 6 percent to 5.8 percent and providing a three-day sales-tax holiday for back-to-school shoppers.
Along with his focus on tax cuts, Scott has requested increasing per-student school funding to $7,176, a roughly $261 per-student increase from the current year. Scott’s per-student funding would be $50 higher than the previous high in the 2007-08 budget year.
The State Board of Education on Wednesday sought to build support for that idea, voting unanimously to once again call on the Legislature to provide record funding.
“I’d like to also remind everyone here and the legislators that we actually have a surplus this year, and let’s not forget that,” said outgoing Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand. “I know there’s some issues with the health care, and the Legislature’s coming together to work that out.”
But Chartrand also indicated that schools should come before Scott’s other signature proposal.
“There’s also tax cuts that have been proposed, and I would hope that we would fund education first before we moved in any other direction,” he said.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart highlighted the state’s recent gains in areas like high-school graduation and said that funding was “absolutely critical” to continuing the momentum.
Stewart also said school districts had been forced by tight budgets in recent years to be more careful in figuring out which funding initiatives should take priority.
“I think the time is the right one,” she said. “Everything is set in place for this Legislature to do the right thing by education in the state of Florida and really invest in the economic development of our state through the education system.”