Fla. governor: Use surplus to cut taxes and fees
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott, anticipating a healthy budget surplus next year, says he wants to cut taxes and fees by $500 million during his re-election year.
But a new three-year budget forecast released Thursday by state economists shows that there won't be enough money to do both tax cuts and increase spending significantly on schools.
The annual forecast, which is required by the state constitution, has plenty of good news for Scott and the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature. It shows that the state continues to recover from the depths of the Great Recession and there is no need for budget cuts in the near future.
"These are better numbers than in any of the years we have produced this," said Amy Baker, the head of the state's Office of Economic and Demographic Research, which has helped draw up the forecast for seven years.
The new forecast shows Florida would have a projected surplus of $845 million in fiscal year 2014 even after meeting current enrollment needs for schools and health care programs such as Medicaid and setting aside $1 billion in reserves. This year, the state's overall budget is $74.2 billion.
But the forecast — which will be presented next week to legislators — also warns that more than half of next year's anticipated surplus is a one-time windfall.
This may make it difficult for Scott to pledge any large scale permanent tax cuts unless legislators agree to pay for them with the growth in state tax revenue that is also projected for 2015. It also makes it unlikely Scott could replicate this year's effort, when he pushed to increase spending on schools by more than $1 billion.
"It's good news, but it doesn't mean everything that people desire to do can be done," Baker said.
Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief, said Thursday that while lawmakers want to pass tax cuts, it's too early to sign off of an exact amount.
"I'm thrilled the Governor has made tax relief a priority," he said in a written statement. "I wholeheartedly congratulate him! That said no one in the legislature has committed to any amount of tax relief. There are too many factors that can and may change between."
Scott, during an appearance last week before a conservative group, first pledged to use the state's anticipated surplus on cutting both taxes and fees. The idea was immediately endorsed by top Republicans in the Florida Legislature.
The governor has not yet said specifically which taxes and fees he wants to cut, but one likely target could be auto tag fees that were raised in 2009, when Gov. Charlie Crist was in office. Crist, who is now a Democrat, is widely expected to challenge Scott in the governor's race.
Scott on Wednesday said he wants to ask Floridians and legislators in the weeks ahead about which taxes and fees should be cut.
"I want to ask all citizens 'what are their ideas?'" Scott said. "What can we do to give you, the citizens, back your money."
Scott in recent weeks has also promised to spend an additional $70 million on environmental projects dealing with the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee in the coming year. That spending would also likely come out of the projected surplus.
A spokeswoman for Scott said that the latest budget forecast would not cause the governor to alter his plans.
"The Governor is committed to returning $500 million to Florida families in this budget and we look forward to working with the Legislature to make this a reality," Melissa Sellers said.
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout