Florida law is very clear about the process that state agencies are supposed to follow when submitting budget requests for the coming year. Their responsibility is to ask for enough money to address the needs of the public functions each agency is required by law to perform — and they are not meeting that obligation.
The statute says:
"The head of each state agency … shall submit a final legislative budget request to the Legislature and to the governor … based on the agency's independent judgment of its needs."
Importantly, the statutes go on to define independent judgment as "an evaluation of actual needs made separately and apart from … any assessments by the governor. Such evaluation shall not be limited by revenue estimates of the Revenue Estimating Conference."
As they were supposed to, Florida state agencies submitted their legislative budget requests for the next fiscal year on Oct. 15. But there is strong reason to believe these requests don't reflect the required independent judgment of needs, and that Floridians will be shortchanged.
Consider the memorandum sent by the governor's director of the Office of Policy and Budget to state agency heads Oct. 12. With regard to development of legislative budget requests, it reminded them:
• "We anticipate no requested increases in agencies' budgets as well as a full slate of reduction options."
• "The state of Florida faces a possible $2.6 billion general revenue funding gap for fiscal year 2010-11."
• "Be cognizant of the limited general revenue growth projected."
These directives appear to pressure state agencies to submit legislative budget requests to the governor (and the Legislature) not based on "independent judgment," but rather, on funds available — contrary to Florida law. It seems to set the stage for a budget debate cut off at the knees at a time when full exploration of all options is essential.
Tens of thousands of people are on waiting lists for services the state agencies are supposed to provide but are not. Those include more than 20,000 seniors and more than 18,000 people with developmental disabilities who wait for community services and support. More than 17,000 people wait for substance abuse services, as do close to 400,000 adults and children with mental illness or serious emotional disturbances that need but do not get services. And at least 300,000 children whose families need financial assistance for child care services are not getting any help.
There is no doubt that independently developed agency budget requests can be considered and revised by the governor and the Legislature. But the failure to specify the revenue to truly meet the needs of the people of Florida in the legislative budget requests increases the likelihood that the Legislature will make the mistake of trying to balance next year's budget solely with budget cuts, a course that would fall short of meeting critical needs.
Though there are signs of recovery, the national recession is not over. And when it does end, history shows it could be at least a couple of years before state revenues rebound to pre-recession levels. In such a dangerous time, the responsible choice for the governor and the Legislature is a balanced approach that considers opportunities to eliminate inefficiencies but also includes revenue. This is far too big a problem to solve with any one approach, and cutting the budget too deeply as demands for services rise would not only hurt those who need help but drag down the state's economy.
A full, open discussion of how to address this crisis would include rebuilding Florida's foundation with a revenue system that is adequate to meet today's — and tomorrow's — needs and reflects the modern economy.
In the end, the governor will make his budget recommendations and the Legislature will appropriate funds as it sees fit. But before they do, they — and the public — should have budgetary information, based on independent judgment, on the programs and services needed by all people in the state. As a result, they will be in a better position to exercise their responsibility to Floridians and make Florida a better state to live in. No one should be afraid of open, honest debate.
John C. Hall is executive director of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, a nonprofit organization in Tallahassee that conducts independent research and educates the public and policymakers on state fiscal and economic policies with particular attention to their impact on low- and moderate-income families, individuals and small businesses.