TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a record-breaking $74.2 billion budget Thursday, pouring hundreds of millions of additional dollars into public schools, colleges and universities in a proposal that Democrats knocked as a public-relations gimmick.
Scott's plan would boost spending by almost $4 billion in the coming budget year, which begins July 1, with much of the increase heading to education. He said the bump reflected more incoming tax revenue brought on by an economic recovery after the fallout from the Great Recession clouded the budgets of his first two years.
"Now that our economy is on track, our 'Families First Budget' includes targeted investments to keep our economy growing and providing more opportunities for Florida families," Scott said.
The spending plan marks a pronounced turnaround from two years ago, when Scott stood in front of an adoring crowd of tea partiers and conservatives in Eustis, boasting he would slash government spending.
"So join me today as we set an example for the nation that you can in fact shrink government, return tax dollars to their rightful owners -- you -- and create an atmosphere that creates new and better-paying jobs," Scott said then.
On Thursday, Scott's office pointed out that the budget was the third-lowest since 2000 on a per capita, inflation-adjusted basis. The two smaller budgets by that measurement were Scott's first two spending plans.
"What Florida families care about is they want an effective, efficient government," Scott said when asked about the size of the budget.
The biggest boost to the budget -- a $1.2 billion increase in funding for public schools -- was not a surprise; Scott had unveiled that increase and the teacher pay raise that serves as its centerpiece in the run-up to Thursday's announcement.
Scott also proposed $393 million in new funding for universities, including $167 million in "performance funding" and $118 million that universities have said would allow them to avoid a tuition increase.
"That's a bargain the presidents and the board of governors were willing to make," said University of Florida Bernie Machen. "And I think we will honor that."
The spending plan would also give $15 million to UF as part of an effort to put the university in the Top 10 in the nation. Machen, who reversed his decision to retire after receiving budget commitments from Scott, defended the school's unique treatment in the budget.
"We're the only one close enough to [the] Top 10," he said.
However, Scott did not propose to separately fill in a $300 million cut in the current budget year that lawmakers said would be a one-time reduction.
Scott would also provide a $1,200 bonus for state employees with a satisfactory evaluation or better, and the chance for more for those with better evaluations; employees have not received a pay raise in six years, something Scott does not propose changing. However, more than 3,600 positions would be eliminated.
About 1,200 of those positions are vacant, and most of the rest would come from the privatization of health-care services at state prisons. Contractors have promised to retain almost all of those workers if they are allowed to take over. The budget would provide a fall-back option funding the services as state operations if the privatization is overturned by the courts, as has happened in recent attempts to move some prison functions into the hands of for-profit companies.
Democrats were already looking for new avenues to knock a plan that seemed to hew closer to their priorities than Scott's early spending blueprints. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, was muted in his acknowledgement of the increased spending on education.
"But I would hope Floridians understand that even with an additional $1.2 billion in education, Florida would remain about $850 million shy of education spending levels of 2007-08 when there were fewer students in our public schools," he said in a statement.
Others griped that Scott had undergone a change of heart directly related to his approval ratings, mired at 36 percent in a Quinnipiac University poll taken in December.
"This budget is not an investment in the things that actually turn around an economy," said Senate Minority Leader Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale in a statement released by his office. "It’s a taxpayer-financed down payment on courting votes for 2014."
Brandon Larrabee reports for the News Service of Florida.