TALLAHASSEE – On the campaign trail, Rick Scott made it sound like such common sense: career politicians had driven the train in Tallahassee, and it was headed off a cliff because of spiraling government growth.
Scott pledged to implement an "accountability budget" that would take a bow-to-stern approach to looking for government waste, and cut $5 billion from a roughly $68 billion budget.
Scott's message was music to recession-racked voters in his 2010 campaign – along with his tax cuts, budget savings were to generate some 364,000 of Scott's 700,000-jobs-in-seven-years pledge – but it never flew in Tallahassee.
Today, Florida's budget is bigger than when Scott took office, at about $70 billion. And the governor just proposed a $74.2 billion budget – the biggest in state history. But Scott sees the spending increases as the result of his policies since taking office in 2011.
"What I ran on was economic growth and job creation," Scott said recently to the Orlando Sentinel editorial board. "I made the tough choices to get our economy back. We cut taxes and controlled the size of government. We made a lot of tough choices."
But the distance between Scott's actual budget policies and what he pledged on the campaign trail is a wide one.
His "accountability budgeting" called for implementing a biennial budgeting process instead of an annual one; transforming traditional line-item budgets into "outcome-based" ones where managers in state agencies would have more flexibility to achieve public benefits; returning government spending to the same level it was relative to the economy in 2004; and "refus[ing] temporary funding from the federal government."
With the exception of rejecting federal dollars for a high-speed train between Orlando and Tampa, none of those goals have been met. The $5 billion budget cut Scott called for on the campaign trail was scaled back to $4 billion in his first budget, and lawmakers largely ignored it.
Still, as the state's economy moves out of recession, Scott has been quick to take credit. Last week, his office announced January unemployment had fallen to 7.8 percent – below the national average for the first time in five years.
"He has done well in terms of keeping taxes relatively low," said Tony Villamil, dean of the School of Business at St. Thomas University in Miami Gardens. "The fiscal situation of the state is stable."
And the improving economy means Florida budget-writers have a roughly $1 billion budget surplus to play with this spring – which has prompted a fiscal turnaround by the governor.
Instead of using that windfall to lobby for the deep tax cuts he ran on, Scott is pushing to spend it. He's backing a $1.2-billion increase in education spending – including $480 million in across-the-board raises for teachers – as well as bonuses for state employees and more money for everything from environmental protection and universities to roads and the developmentally disabled.
And he is insisting lawmakers do something to expand health-care to the poor and draw down some $51 billion in federal Medicaid funding over the next decade. This week, the Senate unveiled its first stab at developing a new program to do that through private insurers in order to draw down that federal money.
Scott says his emphasis on growing government spending now is not in conflict with his 2010 campaign message that Florida was on a path of "unaffordable government spending."
"No one can foresee the future," he said. "But if we continue down the path we're on where more people move to our state, more people have jobs and we spend tax dollars well, we'll be able to continue to invest as our state grows."
Lawmakers say Scott has learned his lesson, not changed the system. They note that his approval ratings plummeted because of budget cuts – especially to public schools – that he advocated in 2011.
"As he himself has said, this has been a learning process," said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs. "He was new to the process. He understands now how important teachers are."
Lawmakers largely shrugged off his "accountability" ideas, refusing to even allow a pilot project last year.
"There just was not a lot of interest," said Scott budget director Jerry McDaniel.
Scott has attempted to force his reform ideas onto state agencies through other means, like threatening draconian cuts to Florida's agency for the disabled, running off other department heads, trying to drug-test welfare recipients, and implementing plans to measure and rank everything from school districts to county election supervisors. Thus far, though, little of that has taken hold, in part because judges have rejected his drug-testing and some privatization efforts.
On the campaign-trail, Scott proposed to save $300 million by laying off 5 percent of the state workforce, or roughly 7,000 people. When he took office there were 109,020 employees in the State Personnel System. Scott's latest budget has 114,283 employees.
Scott's jobs plan was also premised on taking a $1 billion bite out of the Department of Corrections by lowering the per-prisoner costs to be closer to other states. One idea, he said in 2010, was to pay corrections employees less and have prisoners grow their own food. But DOC's budget has remained basically flat.
Scott's office pushed to privatize South Florida's prisons, an initiative which was blocked by a lawsuit filed by the union for prison guards. And DOC is still pressing forward with plans to privatize health-care services at all prisons.
Why has the governor been so unable to make major cuts to spending?
Part of Scott's problem was that he was running a federal message in a state campaign. Florida's budget is constitutionally required to be balanced each year. And Florida already had the cheapest state government in the country, based on per-capita spending.
In 2011, Florida had 112 state workers for every 10,000 in population – the lowest ratio in the country. The national average was nearly twice that: 213. State government payroll amounted to $37 per Floridian, half the national average of $74.
Scott's new budget, though, would reduces the state workforce by more than 3,000 positions, shrinking the ratio of state workers to residents to its lowest ratio in decades.
Another impediment to budget cuts is the state's population growth, which has resumed after lagging during the recession. Scott's $74.2 billion spending plan would run through mid-2014 when Florida's population is projected to reach 19.4 million people – who demand classrooms, roads and other services but also pay taxes.
That's 2.2 million more people than in 2000, when Gov. Jeb Bush proposed his third budget to lawmakers. Indeed, the last four budgets under Bush – who left office in 2007, while Florida was still growing rapidly – averaged increases of 8 percent. By contrast, Scott is asking for a 6-percent increase – which ranks as only the sixth-largest since Bush took office in 1999.
'I don't see a bloated government at the state level in Florida," said University of Central Florida economist Sean Snaith.
Notwithstanding his setbacks, Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Scott's impact on Florida government has been felt.
"There are times that are made for people and people that are made from times," Gaetz said. "These times in our state are made for somebody like Rick Scott, who understands exactly what business people think and what the business calculus is about staying in Florida."
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