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House budget panel hears from Rick Scott’s budget chief, and vice versa

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The House Appropriations Committee heard from Gov. Rick Scott‘s chief budget aide Tuesday afternoon, who presented Scott’s $79.3 billion proposed budget for the 2016-2017 fiscal year before being peppered with questions on taxes, state worker pay, hospital regulation and land acquisition among other issues.

Cynthia Kelly, director of Scott’s Office of Policy and Budget presented the governor’s “Florida First” budget, the sixth since such proposal Scott took office in 2011.

Kelly began with an upbeat presentation, touting gains in revenue growth bolstered by growth in personal income, tourism and population.

Tourism is estimated to exceed 110 million visitors, noted Kelly, while Florida’s population is expected to top 20 million after a brief halt in growth after the 2009 recession. She also heralded positive job growth, presenting an employment chart Kelly says is constantly on display in the governor’s office which depicts job growth of some 36,600 for October, good for third in the nation.

Kelly outlined the Scott’s priorities – namely $1 billion in tax cuts, diversifying the state economy beyond tourism and services, and “historic” funding for education.

Scott’s primary proposals, as outlined in his budget proposal, are to permanently eliminate a pair of manufacturing taxes, cut the commercial lease tax, extend a tax exemption on college textbooks, and extend back-to-school and disaster preparedness tax holiday.

A $250 million “Florida Enterprise Fund,” which Scott personally pitched before  $38 million in additional business incentives and $15 million for “Florida Flex,” previously known as the Quick Action Closing Fund topped the governor’s spending requests, as did $9.2 billion State Transportation Work Program which is heavy on new roads construction.

Kelly also highlighted $20.21 billion for K-12 public schools, $11.01 million of that coming from the state. The remainder comes mainly from property taxes administered through local school districts, an issue that legislative questioners would inquire about extensively.

Also controversial was the budget’s call for a 864 net reduction of state workers, though it requests extra staff in Florida’s ailing Department of Corrections and additional support to recruit Guardians Ad Litem.

Though Republicans outnumber Democrats by more than double on the committee, 19 to 9, it was the minority party that did most of the questioning.

Rep. Darryl Rouson was one of a handful of questioners who asked about incentives for the film industry, a hot-button issue that has drawn blood particularly in the Senate.

“I think I read recently where it was cheaper to re-create Tampa’s Ybor City in Georgia than to come here and do it,” said Rouson, citing a recent article in the Tampa Tribune about the issue. “What does this budget contain for incentives for the enhancement for the industry in the state?”

Kelly replied the governor’s budget proposal does not include funding for film incentives, exactly, but gestured to their enthusiastic support for the Enterprise Fund, which would “have documented return on investment before the dollars go out.” She also indicated Scott was willing to consider any legislation coming before him that contains specific film incentives.

While state workers are often a concern championed by Democrats, it was Broward Republican Rep. George Moraitis who brought the heat when it comes to state employees’ stagnant wages.

“I don’t see anything in this budget for a pay raise” for state workers, said Moraitis.

“I’m not saying we have to go out and sell the farm, but when you don’t have cost of living increases, you’re really giving your employees less purchasing power,” said Moraitis, who asked how Scott intends to address that next year.

Kelly responded that there is additional funding for bonuses for some state workers who meet certain performance criteria.

“The governor has strong feelings in this area and feels that performance-based pay adjustments are more effective than across-the-board pay increases,” said Kelly.

Miami Rep. David Richardson also asked more than a dozen questions, including whether the governor has a specific policy on support of film incentive funding.

Kelley said that while “the governor is always looking for a documented return on investment, There have been some studies that did not indicate that return on investment” is optimal for such subsidies.

Democratic leader-designate Rep. Janet Cruz wondered aloud whether Scott’s “historic” funding levels were “a bit of a charade” since so much of it comes from local property taxes, echoing remarks by a handful of Democratic members.

Kelly replied that though property tax revenues are indeed increasing, that is supported by a substantial increase in property values around the state.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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