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Gov. Rick Scott proposes record $87.4 billion state budget

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday proposed an $87.4 billion election-year budget, in his final opportunity to set the state’s priorities before he leaves office in about 400 days.

It’s by far the largest budget Scott has proposed since he took office seven years ago, and it is sure to undergo wholesale change when the annual legislative session begins on Jan. 9.

“I’m going to fight every day for Florida families,” Scott said at an announcement at Northern Tool in Jacksonville. “But we cannot stop now. We have to have another good budget.”

Scott called it the “Securing Florida’s Future” budget. Critics were quick to dismiss it as a blueprint designed to secure Scott’s political future.  

Scott called it the “Securing Florida’s Future” budget. But his critics in the Legislature, and elsewhere, were quick to dismiss it as a spending plan to secure Scott’s political future.

The two-term Republican governor can’t run again because of term limits, and he’s widely expected to challenge U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who was elected in 2000. Scott’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work, listed $1.5 million cash on hand as of Oct. 31.

The Florida Democratic Party said Scott’s “self-serving” budget proposal can’t compensate for the past seven years of shortchanging education, the environment, health care and law enforcement. “He can’t run away from seven years of budgets that have left hardworking Floridians worse off than when he took office,” Democrats said.

Democrats seized on data showing that many of Florida’s smallest rural counties are worse off economically today than before the Great Recession of 2008-09.

Scott’s rosy view of Florida’s finances stands in stark contrast to the picture presented by the Legislature’s chief economist.

“A looming problem remains,” economist Amy Baker writes in the current version of the state’s long-range financial outlook, noting that the costs of state programs paid for with recurring revenue, mostly from the 6 percent statewide sales tax, exceed the amount of projected money available for 2020 and 2021 to pay for the state’s critical and high priority needs.

“This indicates that a structural imbalance is occurring,” Baker noted. Baker has told legislators that the costs of Hurricane Irma will place additional strain on the state’s finances.

Her outlook noted that the Legislature has made the state’s fiscal picture more complicated by “sweeping” or transferring more than $456 million from a variety of trust funds to the state’s current operating budget.

Revenue experts also have lowered the expected rate of return in the state pension fund next year.

The reduction from 7.6 to 7.5 percent will require an additional $124 million from the Legislature next year to keep the fund fiscally sound.

The size of Florida’s budget has grown larger in each of Scott’s seven years in office, even as the state government work force has shrunk. In 2011, Scott’s first year in office, the budget totaled $69.7 billion. The budget Scott signed last June was $82.4 billion.