Fla. governor wants $1.2 billion more for schools

Florida governor to propose $1.2 billion increase for schools

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott will ask for a $1.2 billion boost in spending on public schools in the coming year, a move that could set up a clash with the Republican-controlled Legislature but could boost his bid for re-election.

Scott revealed the figure when he outlined his top spending priorities during The Associated Press' 19th annual planning meeting on Wednesday.

His announcement comes a day before the Republican governor is expected to make his 2013 budget recommendations to state legislators. Scott will give additional details on his budget proposal, although it is unlikely that Scott will provide a definitive answer on whether he supports accepting federal aid to expand Medicaid.

The total amount of money that Scott plans to seek for public schools includes his previously announced pitch to give every teacher in the state a $2,500 pay raise.

Scott — who just two years ago had recommended a cut in education — said that his proposal would boost per-student spending by roughly 6.5 percent.

"Investing in our teachers and in our education system is the key to our state's continued economic growth," Scott said. "We made the hard choices to recover and get back on track — now we must make the smart choices to invest in Florida's future."

Some Democrats called Scott's recommendation an "epiphany" that may be more about his 2014 re-election bid. Scott has battled low poll numbers for most of his time in office.

"He's finally admitting that I was wrong to try to starve education," said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale.

A breakdown of Scott's schools proposal shows that some of the $1.2 billion won't necessarily make an impact in the classroom. His recommendations include a nearly $300 million payment into the state pension plan on behalf of teachers. Scott's recommendation also includes a $100 million "technology initiative" as well as the money needed to cover increased school enrollment.

It's unclear, however, whether Scott's fellow Republicans will approve a budget that includes his spending priorities. Legislative leaders have already said they are uneasy with an across-the-board pay raise for teacher salaries. But they also said that while the economy is improving the state does not have an unlimited budget surplus.

"We do have more revenue, our budget surplus is breathing room," House Speaker Will Weatherford said. "It's not enough to put your feet up on the couch."

Scott is expected to announce on Thursday spending reductions in some areas of state spending, including nearly $100 million in savings realized from changes in state contracts, the elimination of nearly 932 positions by closing offices, shedding vacant state jobs and reorganizing parts of state government.

But the governor refused to say much on what may be the biggest budget question of the 2013 session: Will the state of Florida accept billions in federal aid to expand Medicaid coverage?

Under President Barack Obama's health care law, Washington would pay 100 percent of the costs of expanding Medicaid from 2014 to 2016. Between 2017 and 2020, the federal share would decrease to 90 percent and the states' contribution would rise in stages to 10 percent, and that's where it would stay.

The law calls for states in 2014 to expand eligibility of Medicaid to those making up to 133 percent of the poverty level, or $29,326 for a family of four in Florida. The changes would also require adding people who are below the poverty level but not eligible for Medicaid, such as childless adults.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last summer that expansion of Medicaid is not mandatory and that states can opt out if they choose.

Scott said that there are still questions that need to be answered by federal authorities before he can render a verdict on Medicaid expansion — hinting that he is unlikely to address it in the budget recommendations he will roll out.

The two Republican leaders of the Legislature said they are still undecided about the expansion.

But Weatherford told reporters and editors, however, that state lawmakers are ready to render a final verdict on expansion with or without the governor's input by sometime in March.

"We certainly care what the governor thinks," Weatherford said. "It would have an impact. But we're not waiting on him to tell us what to do in this regard."

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