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Florida governor seeks higher school aid, business tax cuts

By Michael Peltier

TALLAHASSEE (Reuters) - Florida's Republican governor on Thursday proposed a hefty $4 billion hike in state spending in a budget plan that includes a $1.2 billion increase in school aid, cuts in business taxes, and relies on fatter state sales-tax collections.

Accompanied by teachers, business leaders and state employees, Gov. Rick Scott told reporters at the Capitol that his $74.2 billion spending plan for fiscal year 2013-14 illustrated economic recovery in Florida and tough budget decisions made by lawmakers over the last few years when revenues were faltering.

Buoyed by increases in sales-tax revenues, Scott's plan was the first since the 2008-09 budget cycle that did not include a sizeable revenue shortfall going into the legislative session set to begin in March.

Scott's proposal includes recommendations to lawmakers, who craft the state's spending plan ahead of the new budget year starting on July 1.

Florida's general revenue portion of the budget, a $27.1 billion pot used for discretionary spending, marks an increase of 4.7 percent over last year.

"This is further evidence that Florida's economy is back on track and growing again," Scott told reporters.

Other states, such as California, are also seeing increased revenues. Jerry Brown, California's Democratic governor, three weeks ago proposed a budget plan with the state's first surplus in a decade, but urged restraint in spending.

Some other governors are championing tax cuts, and in Texas on Tuesday, Republican Gov. Rick Perry recommended returning excess state revenue to taxpayers.

Florida's jobless rate stood at 8 percent in December, the best showing in four years for a state still battling back from the U.S. housing bust. But it still remains among the highest rates and above the national unemployment rate of 7.8 percent, according to federal government data. (For details, please see: http://www.bls.gov/web/laus/laumstrk.htm)

For business, Scott's plan calls for expanding the state sales-tax exemption on machinery and equipment used in manufacturing, a tax break expected to save 17,500 employers about $140 million a year.

On the education front, Scott seeks an across-the-board $2,500 raise for public school teachers as part of his proposed $1.2 billon of increases in K-12 education spending.

The plan drew praise from Florida's largest teachers union, whose members generally haven't seen raises in several years.

"We are happy the governor is recognizing and investing in Florida's high performing public schools," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association. "In most of Florida, our public schools are the largest employer."

The governor's proposal also includes $60 million for Everglades restoration and another $75 million for the state's environmental land buying program.

Scott sees a lean year for bonding. His budget blueprint includes about $750 million in transportation bonds, which are paid for by fuel tax revenues and do not affect the state's general revenue budget. The proposal does not include any bonding for school construction or environmental land purchases.

(Writing and additional reporting by Michael Connor in Miami; editing by Gunna Dickson)

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