TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Senate President Mike Haridopolos softened his stance on tax cuts Thursday but said he still thinks Florida lawmakers first must focus on spending reductions.
The Merritt Island Republican previously expressed doubts Florida could afford tax cuts because the state is facing a potential $3.6 billion shortfall _ more if lawmakers increase the state's reserve funds _ in the budget year beginning July 1.
Haridopolos said the difference now is that Gov. Rick Scott has rolled out a $65.9 billion budget proposal that includes nearly $2 billion in tax and fee cuts.
“Obviously, there's going to be some tax relief within this because the governor's asking for it, and this is a give and take,'' Haridopolos said at a news conference. “And, so, we're going to look for those opportunities.''
Haridopolos, who is seeking the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate, said he never took tax cuts off the table and that lawmakers want to be “team players.''
A day earlier the new Republican governor's budget director, Jerry McDaniel, said Scott “is not suffering under the idea that everything we have proposed here will pass'' and that he'll be flexible on many of his proposals.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, have been picking apart some of those recommendations including Scott's proposal to cut education by $3.3 billion. That includes a reduction in public school spending by $703 per student, or 10 percent.
While it's not part of his formal proposal, Scott has suggested the per-student cut could be whittled to $300 _ 4.3 percent _ in part by tapping extra federal stimulus funds the schools are getting under a jobs bill in the current budget year to pay for salaries.
Members of the Senate's budget subcommittee on public schools Thursday called that proposal “smoke and mirrors'' and “re-gifting.''
When the Legislative Budget Commission agreed to accept the money last year, lawmakers urged school officials to use the federal dollars to displace state and local money so those funds could be saved for the next budget year.
Some districts did that but others didn't. A Department of Education survey to determine how much, if any, money each district expects to have left over has not yet been completed.
The other part of Scott's school cut reduction plan is to make state and local government employees, including teachers, pay 5 percent of their salaries into the Florida Retirement Fund. Instead of using that money to strengthen the pension plan, already one of the nation's strongest, Scott wants it to supplant an equal amount of contributions now made by state and local governments.
School districts then could use their retirement savings to reduce the per-pupil spending cut.
Haridopolos said he agrees public employees should contribute to the retirement fund, but he didn't take a position on whether that should reduce government contributions.
“I think that's a debate we'll have,'' Haridopolos said.
The Senate president also took no stance on another Scott budget proposal to repeal a new law setting up an electronic prescription tracking system to help crack down on “pill mills'' supplying pain killers and other medications to addicts and drug dealers.
Scott has questioned the effectiveness of the system, which is being held up by contract challenges, and he's worried it would invade patients' privacy.