By Arek Sarkissian
Naples Daily News
TALLAHASSEE | Florida’s lawmakers are heading into next year’s legislative session at odds on how to pay for the recovery of Hurricane Irma and address increasing costs in Medicaid and schools.
On Thursday, Gov. Rick Scott said he wants money from local projects set aside by lawmakers to pay for storm recovery. Senate President Joe Negron said he still believes those costs should be covered by state’s $3.8 billion cash reserves.
This year, state lawmakers designated $645 million in this year’s $83 billion budget for projects that specifically benefit the voters who elected them to office. Scott said that money and a predicted increase in tax revenue should be more than enough.
“I’m going to focus very aggressively on how we take care of families, and as you expect I’m not going to focus on member projects,” Scott said. “If we spend carefully we will have enough money to one, pay for disaster recovery and two, contribute to our cash reserves.”
Negron, R-Stuart, said projects may seem like props lawmakers use during future political campaigns, but they more often answer needs voiced by residents.
“We have what are called local delegations, which is when constituents bring needs that have come up or exist locally,” Negron said. “It wouldn’t be fair to them to just rule out local projects.”
Scott’s stance is similar to House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who spent the last legislative session cracking down on local projects. After Hurricane Irma ravaged the state in September, he said any House project should be geared toward storm recovery.
House Republicans have already filed more than $93 million on a variety of special projects ahead of next year’s session. House Republican Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, said those projects would be vetted.
“If the project passes the criteria the speaker set then it will move forward,” Rodrigues said.
Scott and Negron spoke about the budget with journalists at an annual pre-legislative meeting hosted by the Associated Press. Corcoran missed the event due to a scheduling conflict.
He sent Rodrigues in his place.
Next year’s legislative session begins on Jan. 9, giving Scott and the Legislature plenty of time to hash out differences. But disagreement on the use of taxpayer dollars for local projects, compounded by storm recovery costs, is a lingering debate from the last session.
Another impact from Irma, which made landfall in the Florida Keys on Sept. 10 and knocked out power to more than 60 percent of the state, was tax revenue. Predictions made in August by legislative budget forecasters of a $2.1 billion increase from this year’s expected $31.6 billion were dashed as the state began to assess and complete repairs.
The state also is expected to see another increase in its $26.2 billion Medicaid program, and there’s also a $300 million increase in the schools budget due to rising student enrollment.
Despite fears from legislative forecasters, Scott said his office thinks the state will see a still healthy $1.3 billion increase in tax revenue.
“There will be more than enough money to address our needs and contribute to the state’s reserves,” Scott said.
Scott said he will release the budget he will ask the Legislature to adopt in the coming weeks. Some highlights he shared on Wednesday included $200 million for child adoption programs, and $21 million to help the citrus industry recover from the September storm. He also plans to propose $10 million to hire 300 new child protective services investigators and another raise for state law enforcement.
Scott had already announced plans to ask for $1.7 billion to address issues like beach re-nourishment, repairs to a dike around Lake Okeechobee and land preservation.