Scott’s Budget Puts Ball In Lawmakers’ Court

Posted: February 15, 2011 in News and politics

Scott’s Budget Puts Ball In Lawmakers’ Court

Published: Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 10:54 p.m.

 

 

TALLAHASSEE | Gov. Rick Scott fulfilled his campaign promise to present a state budget that deeply cuts state spending and taxes.

But now, the real test: Can the first-year governor and rookie politician convince a Republican-led Legislature to embrace a $65.9 billion budget that cuts more than $3 billion in education funding, eliminates 8,700 state jobs and slashes more than $2 billion in taxes?

Early indicators are that lawmakers will not go as far as Scott. But at the debate’s outset, Scott has put GOP leaders at risk of alienating a key element of their party — the rising tea party movement — if they reject his austere spending plan.

By announcing his budget at a tea party rally in Central Florida, Scott has made the passage of his budget a political litmus test for conservatives in Tallahassee.

He subtly made the point at a dinner with state Senate leaders at the governor’s mansion on Monday night after presenting the budget earlier in the day at Eustis.

Scott told the group — which included Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and Senate Reapportionment Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville — that tea party members would be “disappointed” if lawmakers don’t follow his lead on cutting taxes and spending.

The “nation is watching,” added Mary Ann Carter, a special adviser to the governor, shortly before the dinner ended.

Gaetz, in line to become Senate president in two years, downplayed Scott’s aggresive posture in lobbying for his budget plan.

“The governor proposes and the Legislature disposes,” Gaetz said. “We owe the governor the benefit of the doubt and should not prejudge his budget until we read it.”

While saying he is reserving judgment pending a thorough review, Gaetz said there were no surprises in Scott’s plan.

“He’s governing the way he campaigned,” Gaetz said.

But other lawmakers were more critical of Scott’s spending cuts.

“These are huge cuts that are now getting to the bare bones,” said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, chairman of the Senate budget committee on criminal justice spending.

He said lawmakers would be reluctant to back cuts that could limit nursing home care for seniors or could reduce the education budget by billions of dollars.

In his budget area, Fasano said he would question Scott’s call for eliminating nearly 1,700 jobs in the Department of Corrections by closing two state prisons.

Fasano dismissed the threat of any political fallout from opposing some of Scott’s measures, noting the conservative Legislature was already prepared to cut the budget in order to resolve a $3.6 billion shortfall. “We’re certainly not going to raise taxes,” Fasano said.

Meanwhile, the Democrats — who hold a minority of seats in the Legislature — seemed to take some delight in the potential for conflict between the new executive and the Republican majority.

House Democratic leader Ron Saunders of Key West told his caucus on Tuesday that little would be accomplished by criticizing Scott, because the pressure is on the Republican legislative leaders.

“He’s done his job. It’s now in our court. It’s up to the Republican Legislature,” Saunders said.

Among the most difficult issues facing lawmakers is Scott’s call for $3.3 billion in education cuts, including a $1.75 billion reduction in funding for Florida’s 67 school districts.

If passed, it would represent a 10 percent cut in per-student funding across the state — an amount education advocates say would lead to layoffs and major cuts for local schools.

Scott’s budget aides have said the districts can mitigate the cuts by using their savings from the governor’s plan that would force school employees to contribute 5 percent of their salaries toward their pensions. Additional money, which was set aside this year in anticipation of losing federal funding, could also be used. It would reduce the cut to 4.33 percent per student.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who supported Scott in the governor’s race, said that lawmakers were likely to balk at the education cuts.

But Dockery, who briefly ran for governor last year and courted the tea party vote, said she had no objections to Scott’s using the anti-tax group to launch his budget. She said the tea party activists were a “natural constituency” for Scott to use in presenting a budget that deeply cut taxes and spending.

Dockery said Scott’s budget plan, which is essentially a recommendation to the Legislature, will undergo many changes before a final budget bill passes this spring.

“I doubt that ours will look much like the governor’s, as it has always differed in previous years,” she said.

Nonetheless, Dockery said lawmakers would have to make major cuts in state spending and Scott’s budget plan might provide “some interesting things we might follow.”

“We are going to have to make some painful cuts,” Dockery said.

[ Tallahassee correspondent Gary Fineout contributed to this report. ]

This story appeared in print on page A1

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