Florida lawmakers are doing something they haven't done in years: adding money to state programs.
The recession sent the state into multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls that led to big cuts in education and state government payrolls.
But this year, lawmakers have money to play with. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a budget of more than $74 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July. That's about a $4-billion increase in spending over the current year.
So where did the extra money come from?
In his State of the State address last month, Scott credited two years of cutting taxes and red tape so businesses could grow.
“Because we made the hard choices over the last two years, we are able to make the smart choices now to keep our economy growing,” Scott said. “We have a projected budget surplus for the first time in six years.”
As the House budget chief, Lakeland Republican Rep. Seth McKeel will be a key player in crafting the state budget. He began his tenure as a lawmaker in 2006, as the economy was starting its descent.
“We have had to make unfortunate reductions over the last five years in important areas like transportation, education and public safety when we didn't have enough funds,” McKeel said. “We actually had some scenarios where we had to make up (for) budget deficits.”
Of course, the reasons for this turnaround in the state's finances vary depending on who you ask.
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, credits the uptick in tourism.
“Folks want to come here, and when they come here they spend money on mom and pop restaurants," Williams said. "They spend money in our stores, our shopping malls, our amusement parks around the state.”
University of Florida Economist Alan Hodges says the general economy has improved, which in turn means a boost for tourism-related industries like hotels and attractions.
“Of course, our state of Florida is strictly dependent on tax revenues. We don't have a state income tax,” Hodges said. “So, the state government financial picture is going to reflect very closely what the general economic conditions are in the state.”'
Despite the brighter budget pictures, however, the state is still in recovery mode.
The unemployment rate has dropped to 7.7 percent -- from a high of 11.9 percent in January 2010 – but it's still considered high, and Florida remains at the top of the home foreclosure market.
Florida's projected budget surplus is encouraging , said Barb Rosewicz, who researches state fiscal policy for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“But it doesn't mean the state has completely reversed where they were before the great recession. It simply means that the state's expected revenue is larger than the amount that it expects to spend,” Rosewicz said. “Like most states, Florida still has a lot of challenges ahead to get its economy and budget back to full health.”
Rosewicz says the surplus is partly a result of the state being forced to cut spending in recent years. We're still spending less as we're taking in more. That's a tempting pot of money for any politician, she said.
“It's natural and we see it in other states, too, that there's greater pressure to restore spending on some of those programs that had to be cut over the last few years,” Rosewicz said.
The state always has an emergency fund, and next year it'll contain about $2.5 billion.
As for the surplus, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, expects to see lawmakers vying to bring home more money for their districts.
“You know this is the Legislature, so everybody up here is going to be competing to say that my constituents need this or that, and we'll have that conversation,” Braynon said.
The only thing lawmakers are required to do each year is create – and pass -- a budget. The House and Senate each have a budget proposal. They'll work together to come up with one compromise plan to send the governor by the last day of session on May 3.
Gov. Scott will then have line-item veto power before he signs the budget into law.