There were reminders this week that governors come and go, but the rituals of the Capitol remain.
Gov. Rick Scott outlined his eighth and final state budget proposal Tuesday in Jacksonville, though it didn’t seem that long ago that he was a newly elected political novice advancing his first budget, with steep spending cuts, in 2011 in Eustis.
Scott learned a quick lesson in his first year as his $65.9 billion “austerity” budget morphed into a $69.4 billion budget passed by the Legislature. It underscored a given when it comes to state spending: a governor proposes, the Legislature disposes.
Of course, governors get the last shot with their veto pens, which Scott has used with some regularity – and could again after lawmakers pass a budget during the 2018 session.
In 2019, it will be a new governor and new set of legislative leaders repeating the annual budget ritual.
But that doesn’t mean old governors are forgotten, as evidenced by former Gov. Jeb Bush‘s visit to the Capitol this week.
In an event hosted by House leaders, Bush seemed to wax nostalgic about his efforts to shake up the education establishment during his two terms in office, with proposals ranging from vouchers to school grades to the expansion of charter schools.
Ever the policy wonk, Bush lamented the lack of bold initiatives on the national scene, while praising Florida lawmakers for their recent “schools of hope” legislation and urging them to aggressively continue reform efforts.
“If you’re not moving forward, inertia sets in and ultimately you begin to atrophy,” he said.
SCOTT’S FISCAL FINALE
There wasn’t much drama when Scott rolled out his $87.4 billion spending plan for the 2018-19 fiscal year at a Jacksonville hardware store.
In a technique he has honed as a two-term governor, Scott had already telegraphed the major elements of his budget in a series of prior press conferences across the state.
His final plan follows the pattern of his recent budget proposals, with an emphasis on tax cuts, higher school funding and environmental spending and some targeted pay raises for state law enforcement officers. It also includes spending related to the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, including beach-restoration funding and affordable-housing projects for the Florida Keys.
But Scott’s ambitious proposal to boost per-student funding by $200 in the kindergarten through 12th-grade school system may already be in jeopardy. He is at odds with House leaders over using the growth in local property tax revenue to help pay for public schools.
House leaders consider growth in local school property taxes, projected at about $450 million next year, to be a tax increase and will push for a reduction in the tax rate to offset the growth.
Scott and Senate leaders say because the property tax rate is not changed, the growth in revenue is not a tax increase and the money should be used. If the increased property tax revenue is not used, it will be a much more difficult task to boost education spending in the new budget.
ANOTHER ONE BITES THE DUST
The accounts of sexual impropriety in Tallahassee continued this week, with the resignation Friday of Florida Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Bittel after acknowledging inappropriate behavior toward female employees.
His resignation came after Politico Florida reported that six women anonymously complained about Bittel’s behavior, calling it “creepy” and “demeaning.” The women said Bittel, who took over the party post less than a year ago, did not physically harass them but said they were uncomfortable in an atmosphere where Bittel kept breast-shaped stress balls in his office. Bittel apologized.
Meanwhile, the sexual-harassment investigation of Clearwater Republican Sen. Jack Latvala continued.
Latvala is facing an investigation over complaints from unidentified women, first reported by POLITICO, who said he groped them or made unwelcome remarks about their bodies. Latvala has denied the allegations.
Latvala also faces a sexual harassment complaint filed by a Senate employee with the Senate Rules Committee.
DRUG-RELATED DEATHS RISE
A new report from Florida medical examiners showed dramatic increases in all types of drug-related deaths.
Deaths from the synthetic opioid fentanyl rose 97 percent to 1,390 in 2016. Opioid-related deaths rose 35 percent in 2016 to 5,725. Oxycodone-caused deaths increased 28 percent.
The total number of drug-related deaths in Florida jumped 22 percent from 2015 to 2016.
“Clearly, those are shocking numbers and we have got to do something about it,” Senate Health Policy Chairwoman Dana Young of Tampa said.
Lawmakers and Scott are expected to respond to the crisis during the 2018 legislative session, which begins in January.
As part of his new budget, Scott wants to spend $53 million, more than half of which comes from federal funds, on the issue.
His plan would earmark $4 million to help mentally ill patients and drug addicts get housing. It would set aside $15 million in enhancements to the substance-abuse treatment system, which would include 53 additional residential treatment beds, emergency room treatment and follow-up, and targeted outreach for pregnant women with substance-abuse disorders.
His proposal also would spend $5 million on Naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug, and provide $1.2 million on upgrades to the state prescription-drug monitoring program, which keeps track of prescriptions for controlled substances.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Gov. Rick Scott proposed an $87.4 billion budget plan for the 2018-2019 fiscal year. It marks the last spending plan from the two-term Republican governor, who leaves office in January 2019 because of term limits.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Imagine if we had a plane crashing in the state every month. We would do everything we could to stop that. That’s about the amount of people who are dying every month due to opioid addiction.” – state Sen. Jeff Brandes, a St. Petersburg Republican, after a new report showed 5,725 opioid-related deaths in Florida in 2016.
Republished with permission of the News Service of Florida.