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Florida at a crossroads

People from the far reaches of Florida are worrying about impending state budget cuts that threaten their families' livelihood and general well-being. Schoolteachers, police officers, firefighters, prison guards, sanitary workers, and untold other state and local public workers brace, while the governor and Legislature play chess and spin the bottle with their lives and future.

Egged on by big business and the tea party, this group is poised to change the face of Florida. The question is: Will it be for the better or worse?

Florida has a budget problem. Less money is coming in than required to pay the bills; therefore, we must cut certain expenses. If you ask why the state doesn't have enough money to pay for services needed, the answer is that the majority of state money (revenue) comes from sales taxes, and sales taxes are lagging.

The state has a $3.8 billion budget shortfall. Gov. Rick Scott's response is to cut education, cut environmental protection, cut transportation, cut aide to the needy, fire thousands of state employees and reduce take-home pay for the rest. He also proposes to cut corporate and property taxes by $2.4 billion (seriously). Scott speaks of his proposal as simple and necessary. Maybe it is, unless you have children or grandchildren whom you wish to succeed in life, or enjoy Florida's magnificent environment and quality of life, appreciate good transportation, or just need public services to struggle along.

Most of us pay sales taxes on almost everything our family needs, except, justifiably, food and drugs and other essentials. But, check a little closer and you may be surprised to find that if you can afford to buy a stadium skybox or a yacht, you pay no taxes. Look again and you will see hundreds of tax exemptions that were pushed through by an army of lobbyists who represent the wealthiest in the state and nation.

Most people don't complain about paying taxes for the benefits they receive. But if the Legislature or maybe the tea party would ask, "Is everyone paying their fair share?" the answer would be no. Unlike ordinary citizens who pay their sales taxes without complaint, many rich folks are doing far better than us; they pay no sales taxes on hundreds of big-ticket luxury and business items.

Should the Legislature ever get serious and eliminate or reduce a fraction of the hundreds of unjustifiable tax exemptions on goods and services, the $3.8 billion budget problem would be solved with no pain — there would be no need to cut education, transportation, public health and safety, environment, and punish public employees. Unless the sales and services tax exemptions are altered so that more people and businesses pay their fair share, this state will have a budget crisis every time the economy hits a bump in the road.

Remember the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, when environmental protection was a top state priority, while at the same time Florida prospered and had phenomenal population growth? Now ask whether proposals to diminish environmental and public protection are a wise idea. And consider the perspective of the businesses that the governor wants to lure to Florida with his draconian reductions in education, environmental protection, transportation, safety, and so on.

It is a fact that businesses looking to relocate give close attention to the quality of education, environment, safety and general quality of life of the places they are considering. If you owned a business, would you move to a state that has poor schools, declining public safety and a gloomy environmental future — a state going backwards?

The tea party — who are they? Some are native Floridians, some have lived here for many years, and some have recently arrived. Some are our friends and neighbors. They all seem to have something in common — they love our warm climate, beautiful environment and low taxes. They favor less spending, less taxes and less government. At the same time they demand full public services, such as good roads, police and fire protection, and nice parks. One must wonder if they understand that these services have to be paid for.

Someone said to me, "Why are you writing this? Don't you know that you are spitting in the wind, facing a stacked deck?" Yes, but we have to keep trying. You see, I was born here, raised my family here, and spent my life and career caring about my state. Now we worry that our four young grandsons may not get a high-quality education, clean air to breathe and water to drink, and a safe and healthy environment. We can't quit yet.

Estus Whitfield worked in state government from 1971 to 1999 and was the principal environmental adviser to Govs. Bob Graham, Bob Martinez, Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush.

Florida at a crossroads 04/10/11 [Last modified: Sunday, April 10, 2011 8:28pm]
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