TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who just two years ago said it was time to slash state spending and return government to its "core functions" — is now asking state lawmakers for a 6 percent hike in spending.
Scott on Thursday unveiled a $74.2 billion budget for the coming year that calls for higher spending on schools and universities, including an across-the-board $2,500 pay raise for school teachers and a $1,200 one-time bonus for state workers.
The Republican governor also called for spending more on key environmental programs such as Everglades restoration and increasing money available for school safety programs by 16 percent.
But Scott's third proposed budget was also notable for what it did not include: A recommendation on whether the state should accept federal aid and expand Medicaid — a key part of the Affordable Care Act.
Instead Scott continued to insist there were too many "unanswered questions" about how the Medicaid expansion would work. If Florida were to expand the safety-net program, an estimated 900,000 residents would become eligible for coverage.
"Today is not the day for that decision," said Scott, a former health care executive who has been a strong critic of President Barack Obama's overhaul. Scott last summer had vowed the state would not expand Medicaid, but he softened his stance after Obama's re-election.
Scott did call for spending money to offer insurance to part-time employees to avoid potential penalties under the Affordable Care Act. His budget also includes spending on mandatory items under the health care overhaul, including paying primary care doctors more.
In other areas, Scott is sticking to his position that university and community college tuition should remain at its current levels. He also wants state legislators to freeze tuition for the next four years for incoming freshmen.
His budget calls for spending more to promote tourism and borrowing money in order to pay for improvements to the state's seaports.
But Scott did include plenty of cuts in his budget proposal.
He wants to slash payments to hospitals, cut off some services now offered to Medicaid patients, and eliminate nearly 4,000 jobs, many of them in the state's prison system. He wants to close eight driver's licenses offices, including ones in Gainesville, Lakeland, Sebring and Orlando.
During a brief presentation to announce his budget focused primarily on two areas: His proposed $1.25 billion budget boost for public schools and new tax cuts for businesses, including the elimination of sales taxes on equipment used for manufacturing.
"This budget is aimed at making strategic, targeted investments to keep our economy on track and moving," Scott said.
Scott justified the increased spending this coming year by noting the "tough choices" that the state had made when he first came into office in 2011. The state's economy has improved since then and state tax collections are beginning to grow again.
Shortly after he was sworn in, Scott had recommended billions in spending cuts, including cuts to schools.
"It's not a budget that dabbles," Scott said two years ago when he unveiled his spending recommendations at a Central Florida church. "It doesn't offer a little something for every special interest or sweeteners for special people."
On Thursday Scott said: "Now we have the wherewithal to make more investments."
State lawmakers will use Scott's budget recommendations as a framework for the final budget they will adopt later this spring. The initial reaction from top Republicans was restrained.
Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief, called Scott's recommendations "thoughtful" but then said he was waiting to see if economic forecasts in March continued to show growth in state tax collections.
One Democrat said that Scott was relying on "gimmicks" to remake his image in advance of an expected re-election campaign in 2014.
"This budget is not an investment in the things that actually turn around an economy," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale. "It's a taxpayer-financed down payment on courting votes for 2014."
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout