by John Kennedy
The News Service of Florida
Despite getting steady pushback from top lawmakers, Gov. Rick Scott said Wednesday that he expects his budget blueprint to sail through the Legislature, promising it will include deep program cuts and more than $2 billion in tax reductions.
Speaking to the Associated Press annual legislative planning session at the Capitol, Scott derided the state’s current $70 billion spending plan as “bloated.”
Two weeks into his first elected job, the governor promised that the budget proposal he plans to roll out Feb. 4 will include sharp spending reductions aimed at covering a $3.6 billion shortfall caused by the end of federal stimulus dollars flowing to Florida and a three-year decline in tax collections caused by the feeble economy.
But Scott still promises to make good on his campaign pledge to phase out the state’s corporate income tax and cut property taxes.
“I’m going through every line item in the budget,” said Scott. “But I don’t think we should be spending this much money. I don’t think we do a good enough job of how we buy things.”
Scott shrugged off growing skepticism from fellow Republicans in the Legislature about whether the budget balancing act, which the new governor conceded was “thankless,” could include his promised property tax cut of $1.4 billion and a first-year rollback of more than $800 million in the state’s business tax.
House Speaker Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park), preceding Scott at the same event, said lawmakers were struggling to close the state’s budget gap and saw little chance of tax cuts being handed out this spring.
“If there’s a way they can be reduced and still meet the critical needs, I’m open to it, but it’s going to be very difficult,” said Cannon, adding that it would be up to the governor to show lawmakers the path to tax-cutting.
“I haven’t seen a way (to cut taxes) yet that I’m persuaded is doable,” said Cannon.
But he added, “If there’s a workable way they can be reduced, great. I haven’t seen proposals yet that I think can achieve that.”
Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island) described Cannon, Scott and himself as “the Three Amigos.” But speaking at the AP session Wednesday, Haridopolos also said that he was focused on closing the $3.6 billion budget hole.
Tax cuts weren’t in his plans right now, although if Scott wanted to pitch his proposals, “I’m all ears,” said Haridopolos.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who last spring was Senate president, defended the $70 billion spending plan that Scott blasted.
Atwater disputed the characterization of the budget as “bloated,” but said, “we can do better. We can do more,” when it comes to Scott’s plan for reductions.
Scott didn’t provide any plans Wednesday. But he did offer a general condemnation of the state’s current approach to spending, a product of a dozen years of Republican control of the governor’s office and Legislature.
Scott said the state spends far too much on unnecessary services and that too many people see state government as a moneymaking venture.
“We’re not here to solve every problem,” said Scott. “We’re here to make life better and help people get jobs.”
The former health care executive also broadly described his approach to budget-making, likening it to his experience in private business.
“You’ve got to pick and choose,” said Scott. “You can’t do everything. You’ve got to do the things that are the most important at the time.”
Scott conceded that his budget style is not likely to win him many friends. A workout enthusiast, Scott said that he and his wife, Ann, want to have a gym installed at the Governor’s Mansion to keep the couple from having to visit Tallahassee fitness centers.
Otherwise, Scott said he fears, “Everybody will protest me.”
Scott reaffirmed his commitment to cutting state regulations, overhauling state agencies and courting business leaders across the globe to help blunt Florida’s roughly 12 percent unemployment rate.
He touted Tuesday’s announcement by Vision Airlines that it was adding flights through Destin in the Florida Panhandle as an example of an early success by his office in achieving his job-creating goal.
Scott said that if Vision’s expansion brought 150 jobs to Florida, it would slightly winnow down his promise of creating 700,000 new jobs over the next seven years.
While Cannon, Haridopolos and other state leaders have said the state will steer clear of offshore-drilling proposals for at least two years, Scott said drilling was likely something in the state’s future. But, “we’ve got to figure out a way to make it safe,” he said.
Scott’s appearance at a media-sponsored event comes even as the governor is drawing heat from reporters and the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors for limiting media access.
Reporters have complained that Scott’s office has been slow to respond to media requests for information and has limited access to a single “pool” reporter at some events.
Scott, though, downplayed any criticism, while promising to be as accessible as possible. The governor also acknowledged that he doesn’t read media reports about his administration, although he does get news briefings from staff.
“I’ve done press conferences. I’ve done gaggles. Everybody can come to those,” he said. “We’ve had 30 requests for public information (public records requests). I feel very comfortable that we’re open.”