Hey, Big Spender! How the Budget Process Works

Feb 7, 2013 by

Much has been written since Gov. Rick Scott released his budget – that’s right, the $74.2 billion budget. You got it, the budget that includes more than $4 billion in spending above the prior year. Yes, you heard right, that would be the largest budget in state history.

And there’s something in there for virtually everyone!

Teachers have been very unhappy with the governor and the policies he has supported. But no worries: There’s $480 million for them. University funding was cut $300 million last year, but, hey, that was only temporary. Here’s $393.3 million to make up for that.

The environmentalists are unhappy about decimating the water management districts, purging the Department of Environmental Protection employees and selling off state lands. Not a problem. There’s $135 million for programs to take their minds off that.

State employees? Let bygones be bygones. There’s a $1,200 bonus for each of you! In fact, let’s throw in some spare change for discretionary bonuses. Heck, all told, that’s only $315 million.

What’s amazing about this complete transformation from two years ago is the utter and complete silence from the tea party movement.

Let’s take a look back, shall we?

At the governor’s unveiling of his first official budget, he addressed a predominately tea party crowd in Lake County to boast of his courageous cutting of unnecessary and/or wasteful spending. The crowd went wild. Conservatives gave him credit for balancing the budget as though this was a rarity in Florida government.

Since becoming a big spender with our tax dollars — crickets.

Don’t get me wrong; many of these proposed spending items have merit. As do many of the criticisms of the governor’s motivations. And the lack of backlash from fiscal conservatives could be a calculated political risk on the part of the governor whose popularity lies pretty much within that group alone.

It’s important to understand a few facts about the state’s budgeting process.

First, the Legislature is constitutionally required, unlike the federal government, to pass a balanced budget every year. So despite the fawning over Scott’s first recommended budget and making “the tough cuts,” in reality those tough decisions are made and have been made every budget year.

Second, the Legislature — the House and Senate — have only one requirement in their 60-day legislative session: to pass a balanced budget. If they take up no legislation other than an appropriations act, they have fulfilled their duties.

Third, the governor’s role in the budgetary process comes after the Legislature passes the appropriations bill. The governor can sign the spending bill or veto it. And, unlike the president, the governor does have the ability to veto specific line items, without having to veto the entire budget. This gives him tremendous power and responsibility for allowing the spending or cutting the spending. The governor cannot, however, add a spending item to the budget.

So if the Legislature is responsible for writing the budget, why does the governor offer a proposed budget and what does his budget mean?

With malice toward none, bluntly speaking, the governor’s budget means close to squat. It is an attempt to provide a framework to the Legislature, which generally says, “Thank you, but we’ll take it from here.”

In or near an election year, the governor’s budget might prove effective in garnering new friends or sending a strong message regarding the direction he wants to take. Knowing the Legislature might completely ignore a recommendation; there is little risk or downside to proposing these thoughtful gestures. After all, it is the Legislature and not the governor who has to balance the checkbook at the end of the day.

The line-item veto power of the governor does give great incentive to legislators to include some of the governor’s budget priorities in their budget so the annual mating ritual can begin. It should surprise no one that horse-trading and deal-making do take place between the two chambers and between the Legislature and the governor’s office.

With a probable matchup in 2014 with former Gov. Charlie Crist, Scott needs to be better liked, to compete with the amiable Crist, who enjoys the adulation of teachers, law enforcement, firefighters, state employees and environmentalists.

In an attempt to widen his base of support, Scott wants to shower them with affection and our tax dollars.

Only time will tell if these groups, like the teachers, will “take the money and run” or whether Gov. Scott will find out that “money can’t buy you love.”

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