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Politics

Lawmakers Approve Budget Report with Small Surplus

September 17, 2014 - 6:00pm

As Gov. Rick Scott continued a tour Wednesday promising $1 billion in tax cuts over the next two years, a legislative committee approved a report projecting a surplus about a third that size in the budget year that starts in July.

With little discussion, a panel of lawmakers charged with overseeing the state budget when the Legislature isn't in session approved the annual long-range financial outlook.

Taking into account the likelihood that the Legislature will continue to set aside $1 billion in reserves and spend money on high-priority programs, the report estimates lawmakers will have about $336 million extra to plow into spending increases or tax cuts during the 2015-16 fiscal year.

That number could increase or decrease before either Scott or his Democratic challenger, former Gov. Charlie Crist, begins crafting a final budget proposal, and then again before lawmakers take their crack at a spending plan next spring. For his part, Crist has floated new spending initiatives that would also eat into the surplus.

Republicans who lead the Joint Legislative Budget Commission, which approved the report, played down the significance of the potential gap between the final surplus number and what might be needed to fund Scott's priorities.

"Certainly, the Legislature and the governor can make changes next year," said House Appropriations Chairman Seth McKeel, a Lakeland Republican who is not running for re-election due to term limits.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, cautioned against reading too much into the report, saying he believes everything the state spends should be reviewed annually.

"I think we don't know for sure what items in the rest of the general revenue part of the budget we will fund," Negron said. "Just as this year, we found almost $500 million to send back and reduce tag and title fees, and we still ended up with $1.3 billion in reserves. It's just too early to know how all that's going to play out."

The report, a draft of which was released last week, doesn't appear to have changed Scott's message as he stumps for a second term.

"Charlie Crist and Barack Obama think that government creates jobs and money grows on trees because they?re both career politicians who have never run a business or created a single job. ... And now we'?re going to continue Florida'?s turnaround with a $1 billion tax cut commitment to Florida'?s families over the next two years," Scott said in a news release Wednesday.

Amy Baker, a top state economist, said Florida's recovery is continuing to move along, though it will still take time to get back to what would be considered normal. She also said that while there were still some low-possibility events that would dramatically impact the recovery -- called "black swans" -- the danger appears to have lessened.

"I would say the black swans are few compared to what we've seen in the past," she said.

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