Lawmaker’s Ugly Challenge
Published: February 28, 2010
The mean season begins Tuesday when Florida lawmakers gather in Tallahassee for what will likely be a blistering two-month session. The Legislature is grappling with a deficit that could reach $3.2 billion. Leadership wants no new bills that would have a negative fiscal impact. There will be no additional revenues. It’s going to be ugly.
Our senators and representatives must forget about politics and make hard choices. Painful cuts are inevitable. But there are also some sensible ways to raise revenue.
Gov. Charlie Crist has been hammered hard for proposing a more optimistic budget, but he set a benchmark for the Legislature to meet. His budget anticipates $1 billion from the federal government to cover the increasing cost of Medicaid in Florida and projects a $2.6 billion shortfall. Lawmakers should recognize the likelihood of federal help.
But they also must know that cash gifts from the federal government come with strings attached. Sometimes federal largesse results in more expenses and bureaucracy. Each “opportunity” must be vetted.
Though there have been widespread cuts the last few years, there surely are additional ways to make government more efficient. Tampa’s Sen. Victor Crist points out, for example, that the state has no idea what office space is available for government agencies. Florida is paying rent on some privately owned properties when government offices sit empty, he says. An inventory is under way.
The veteran lawmaker is worried, however, that Florida residents don’t have a realistic understanding of what the state is facing. To close the deficit will require a 15 percent reduction in general revenue, most of which goes to health and human services and public safety. Cuts in these areas are inevitable.
Last year Florida depended on federal stimulus dollars, a cigarette tax and new fees to raise money, but smarter ways to raise revenue are essential. The state should join the national effort to collect legally owed sales taxes on products bought on the Internet from merchants in other states. They should be open to repealing some of the state’s sales tax exemptions.
Lawmakers should come to grips, finally, with the fact that gambling has arrived in Florida. Most of the state may not like it, but voters have allowed slot machines in a few counties, which allowed the Seminoles to offer the same games on their federally controlled land. Lawmakers should approve the governor’s agreement with the Seminoles, which would allow the state to share in their gambling profits but also prevent further spread of gambling in Florida.
Balancing the budget may be the Legislature’s single constitutional responsibility, but there are other issues Floridians care about, too.
Florida University Chancellor Frank Brogan has offered a challenging strategy to revitalize the economy. He wants the state to double its spending on higher education to $3.5 billion annually. He argues persuasively that a better-educated population will attract new enterprises.
Gov. Crist would take a step toward achieving Brogan’s vision by increasing the higher education budget by $100 million. He also promotes clean energy alternatives as a way to generate jobs. These are plans that make sense.
Lawmakers should understand that any effort to undermine growth controls in favor of development will likely ensure passage of Amendment 4, the controversial and ultimately chaotic Hometown Democracy amendment. It would change the state constitution to require a voter referendum on every city and county comprehensive plan amendment or development order and bring growth, and potentially the economy, to a standstill.
The amendment resulted from frustration that the public had no say in the development process. The Florida League of Cities is promoting legislation to set a statutory minimum requiring “the opportunity to engage.” It’s a proposal that would send a message that the Legislature understands the system is broken. It needs a sponsor.
Gov. Crist and the legislative leadership also want to loosen the costly handcuffs of Florida’s class-size law. The move would save the state more than $3 billion next year.
Lawmakers should not spend a minute on proposals to drill in state waters immediately off the coast, which would be an outrage.
There are other issues – property taxes, homeowner’s insurance, the environment – all of which ultimately affect the taxpayers of Florida.
By setting priorities, making strategic cuts and showing fiscal restraint, the Legislature can prove its conservative bonafides while protecting our vital interests.