TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who was criticized for pushing school funding cuts a few months ago, is asking for a billion dollars more for education to come during an election year.
Scott on Wednesday will introduce a budget for 2012 that calls for increasing the amount spent on the state's nearly 2.7 billion public school students by slightly more than $100 each and more than $1 billion overall.
While the overall amount per student is not going up that much, it marks a dramatic change for the Republican governor.
Scott recommended a 10 percent cut in February and then signed into law a budget that reduced school funding by $1.3 billion. The real-life effect was softened somewhat because teachers were forced to start picking up part of the cost of their pension that had been paid by school districts.
But Scott told Florida's public school superintendents that after meeting with teachers, students and parents the last few months he has decided to make education a top priority for his next budget.
Scott even vowed that he will not sign a new budget into law unless lawmakers go along with his plan to increase spending on schools.
"I'm allocating dollars to education and I'm telling them I'm not signing a budget unless it is has a significant increase for education," Scott said on a conference call.
State lawmakers will use the governor's recommendations as a building block for next year's budget, which will take effect during a heated election year where all 160 legislators will be on the ballot.
But while the governor has a new fervor for schools, he still wants another round of tax cuts. In order to pay for more school funding and tax cuts, Scott will likely have to ask that legislators slash other parts of the state's $61.1 billion budget.
"It won't make everybody happy with some of the other things that I will reduce," Scott said.
One area where Scott is expected to wring out savings is by asking state workers to pay more for their health insurance.
Scott and the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature are facing a nearly $2 billion budget shortfall next year because tax revenues are not growing as fast as hoped and because of increasing costs in Medicaid, the safety net health care program.
But the state is also looking at an expected increase of 30,000 additional public school students and an ongoing drop in property values. School property taxes are a big source of money for public schools. Scott's recommendation of increasing state spending by more than $1 billion is meant to help school districts cope with the increased enrollment and the decline in local tax dollars.
"I see this as a big win for our K-12 system," said Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson.
Last May Scott vetoed a record $615 million from this year's budget and called on lawmakers to take the savings and plow them back into education. But at the time his suggestion was rejected by Republicans. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, even said he was surprised by the "governor's sudden emphasis" on public schools.
Scott's decision to call for more school funding in May came after a stretch that saw his poll numbers plunge.
Scott on Tuesday called on school superintendents to support his budget by being vocal with state legislators in the weeks ahead. Legislators will start their annual session in January.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and Senate budget chief, said that he agreed with Scott that lawmakers should make additional money for schools one of their top budget items.
"It's important to the people of Florida and for our future," Alexander said. "I will support his efforts to do that and I will work with him to accomplish it."