FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott has embarked on a tour around the state to hear from business owners and residents about how to cut $500 million in taxes and fees next year, when he likely will face a tough re-election fight. But Democrats said the tour was nothing more than political posturing and warned that the cuts would favor special interest groups.
The governor said Florida is expected to have an extra $1.5 billion on hand next year if the economy continues to recover.
Scott said Tuesday he isn't committed to any hard plan, but two poster boards prepared by state officials for the events show cuts for employers could include business taxes on electricity and sales taxes on commercial leases. Potential cuts for Florida residents could come in the form of sales tax holidays or cuts to car registration fees, property taxes and communications services taxes.
"This is your money. I want to make sure it comes back to you whether you're a job creator or a family," said the Republican governor, who mostly listened to a hodgepodge of ideas from several dozen business leaders on everything from port expansion to water preservations and unemployment rates.
But a new three-year budget forecast released last week by state economists shows that there won't be enough money to do both tax cuts and increase spending significantly on schools. The forecast shows Florida would have a projected surplus of $845 million in fiscal year 2014 even after meeting current enrollment needs for schools and health care programs such as Medicaid and setting aside $1 billion in reserves.
Several attendees pushed heavily for cutting the tax on commercial leases, saying it would create jobs. The governor noted that Florida and New York city are the only places in the country that charge that tax.
"It's a bigger amount than we can do in any one year but it's something that we ought to be looking at," Scott said during the second stop on the four-day tour, which also includes visits to West Palm Beach, Orlando, Jacksonville and Tampa.
Others expressed concerns that tax cuts would hurt education efforts and lead to public-sector layoffs or delays in maintaining public buildings.
Scott's tax cut proposal could also help in a potential matchup with former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat. Crist was a Republican in 2009 when he signed into law a package of tax and fee hikes that the Legislature passed in order to balance the budget.
Scott did not directly criticize Crist by name Tuesday. Crist is expected to challenge Scott. But Scott was clear in criticizing what happened during Crist's term, saying the state lost 832,000 jobs and unemployment spiked.
"It shouldn't have happened. No income tax, a right-to-work state...we've got to figure out how we make sure that we grow our economy. We've got to reduce taxes when we can," he said.
Scott's proposal may also reconnect him to the conservative base that helped propel him to victory three years ago. He earned a standing ovation at a conservative summit last month held by Americans for Prosperity when he first came on the stage and he got support from the crowd for his tax cut plan.
The governor has sought tax cuts every year he has been in office, but his initial efforts encountered stiff resistance from his fellow Republicans in the Legislature. Shortly after he was inaugurated in 2011, Scott sought tax and fee cuts of $4 billion over a two-year period. But those deep tax cuts were rejected by legislators struggling with a budget gap. And he may have trouble again next year.
State Rep. George Moraitis, who is also a real estate agent, expressed hesitation about doing away with the state sales tax.
"I don't know about going all the way with it because it is a very large income source for the state at this point and we want to keep a diverse tax base as much as we can. We are fairly dependent on sales tax. If you start experimenting with big portions of the market from that, you end up putting a squeeze on other things," said the Fort Lauderdale Republican.
House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, criticized the tour as a gimmick and the potential tax and fee cuts as a giveaway to wealthy special interests.
"It's time that Florida's leaders get serious about better funding for public schools, community colleges and universities," he said in a statement.
Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart and the Senate budget chairman, previously said the Legislature would give Scott's proposal "careful consideration," but stressed he wants to keep the state's budget reserves flush in case the recovery falters.