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Report: Lower budget surplus will make campaign promises hard to reach

As Florida's governor's candidates face-off tonight for their second highly-anticipated debate in Broward County tonight, Florida TaxWatch is out with a sobering reminder.

The business-backed government watchdog group warns that the $336 million budget surplus Gov. Rick Scott, Charlie Crist and most of the Florida legislators are counting on to pay for their campaign promises is going to be pretty slim. (Scott, for example has promised $1 billion in cuts in taxes and fees over the next two years on top of new money for education and environment. ) In other words: be careful what you wish for.

"The $336 million surplus needs to be put into context," said Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Tax Research for Florida TaxWatch. "It is only 1.1 percent of projected General Revenue spending. It is also based on leaving only $1 billion in reserves, much smaller than what recent legislatures have left. The budget process will again be very competitive and it is our hope that each project will be thoroughly vetted by the full Legislature."

The report notes that this is the fourth straight year in which there has been a projected surplus heading into the legislative session, "but this surplus is much smaller than the $845.7 million surplus projected last year. Still, the continuation of the current string of surplus is a welcome change from the previous four years, which saw shortfalls averaging $2.7 billion." 

The TaxWatch report is also based on a set of assumptions that include the base budget will cover $1.2 billion in what the group deems "critical needs." That may be a bit of a subjective list. For example, as the Florida Department of Corrections faces a avalanche of excessive force and suspicious inmate death reports, TaxWatch still concludes there are no "critical needs" for funding in the state's criminal justice budget. Here's the report.

Here are the some of their budget assumptions: 

The components of the $1.219 billion in increased GR spending needs are (by budget area):
• $236.3 million for PreK-12 Education ($159.5m in Critical Needs);
• $214.5 million for Higher Education($25.2m in Critical Needs);
•$257.4 million for Health and Human Services($155.9m in Critical Needs);

• $77.5 million in Transportation and Economic Development ($19.9m in Critical Needs);

• $172.0 million for Natural Resources($0 in Critical Needs);
• $25.6 million for Criminal Justice($0 in Critical Needs);
• $44.4 million for General Government($25.7m in Critical Needs); and
• $191.5 million for Administered Funds (Statewide Issues) ($119.8m in Critical Needs).