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Scott preparing a 'very tough budget'

Gov. Rick Scott will make his annual budget recommendations to the Legislature next Wednesday and he told Floridians Friday he's anticipating a "very tough" budget. Scott noted that the state is facing nearly a $2 billion shortfall -- the gap between the projected tax revenue available and projected cost of meeting the state's critical needs. The challenge, he said, is that Medicaid rolls continue to grow faster than state revenues, and public school enrollment is projected to increase by 30,000 more students next fall.

The uptick in K-12 enrollment is projected to carry a price tag of $191 million, Scott said. Local property taxes are projected to show a 3 percent decline, which he said equates to a loss of about $200 million, he said. Add in the loss of about $550-million in federal education stimulus money, Scott said, and he starts out $1.2 billion short.

"This is going to be a tough year to try to figure out how to do the right thing," Scott said. "Because we have to do the right thing for education, because it's the future of our state. If our kids can't get a great education, then we won't have the progress we've already had this year." 

He chided the Obama administration for not acting on the state's request to create a Medicaid block grant program, which he claimed would be most cost-effective. "We can figure out how to spend the money better and take care of Floridians," he said. "And in the meantime, we have a Medicaid plan up there (in Washington) that they still haven't approved. That's disappointing."  

Scott's message Friday was a lot different than it was a year ago, when he proposed a 10 percent reduction in public education funding, a proposal that led to a backlash from educators and some legislators. This time, the first-term Republican governor says he's searching for inventive ways to maintain the current level of school funding.

Another shift for Scott is more stylistic but still worth noting. Last February, he unveiled his first set of budget proposals before a crowd of about 800 people at a strongly Tea Party-flavored rally at First Baptist Church in Eustis, a small town north of Orlando. This time, Scott will utilize a more traditional approach, at a press conference in the state Capitol. But he said: "It's not to send a different message."

-- Steve Bousquet