Fla. lawmakers give mild criticism of Scott budget

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Rick Scott's $74.2 billion proposed budget isn't winning a lot of praise so far from state legislators.

The governor unveiled his budget last week. On Tuesday his budget director spent nearly three hours going over the spending plan before a House budget panel.

Republican and Democratic legislators raised questions on some of the governor's key proposals, including his push to offer a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise to school teachers and a one-time bonus for state employees.

Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland and House budget chief, questioned the rationale behind the proposals, noting that the governor was also proposing to give a third of state employees merit raises as well as the bonus. Scott also wants to hand out raises to corrections officers.

"There are three different ways, and I'm concerned if that's a defensible mechanism for dealing with employee pay," McKeel said.

Democratic legislators also questioned why Scott has refused so far to take a stance on whether the state should accept federal aid to expand Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act calls for expanding Medicaid coverage to those who are just above the poverty line, but the decision is optional for states. Scott initially was opposed to expansion of the safety-net program but then softened his stance after President Barack Obama was re-elected.

Jerry McDaniel, the governor's budget director, repeated Scott's position that "there's too many questions" on whether to go forward with the expansion right now.

This week governors in Ohio and Pennsylvania took stances on the expansion when they rolled out their proposed budgets. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced Tuesday he would not pursue the expansion, while Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he would go forward with it.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples and chairman of the House committee that oversees health care spending, raised questions about Scott's proposed cuts for hospitals.

The governor — who once ran the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain — is proposing a 2 percent cut to hospitals that treat Medicaid patients, although he wants to shield rural and children's hospitals from the cut.

McDaniel defended the proposal by saying that Florida's hospitals are currently "profitable."

"They make money and they do pretty well," McDaniel said.

But Hudson said later that he is concerned about the "cumulative" effect of years of budget cuts to the state's hospitals. He noted that Scott did not propose similar cuts to other health care providers such as nursing homes.

State lawmakers during their annual session will use Scott's recommendations as a framework for a new state budget. The session starts in March.

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