The refusal of Florida's leaders to responsibly address the state's budget crisis was underscored Wednesday by Gov. Charlie Crist's announcement of his latest deal with the Seminole Indian Tribe. The idea is for the Seminoles to give the state $600 million up front in return for expanded gambling. This is not sound public policy. This is a desperate attempt to avoid choosing between raising taxes or decimating education and other public services.
The new incarnation of the Seminole deal is not likely to be quickly embraced by House and Senate negotiators who remain miles apart in budget negotiations. But it underscores why lawmakers are having so much trouble coming to an agreement. Even with billions in federal stimulus money, potential new gambling revenue and an assortment of fee increases, there is not enough money to balance the budget without harmful cuts.
Unfortunately, Floridians are being prevented from seeing the complete picture. Republican House and Senate leaders met in secret again Wednesday to try to agree on how much money to spend. The Senate should hold firm to its position that the state should spend $547 million more — most of that on higher education. But neither chamber's plan is sufficient as they cut public schools, universities, foster care, affordable housing and more.
There are more legitimate ways to raise state revenue than to rely on the Seminoles for more gambling money up front. For example, lawmakers could close sales tax exemptions. But the House reviewed just a few exemptions, and the Senate never considered any. Also lost in the shuffle is a plan to make it easier to collect sales tax from Internet sales — which could eventually raise as much as $500 million to $700 million annually; closing corporate tax loopholes worth $50 million; taxing bottlers who pay almost nothing for the Florida water they resell; or expanding the sales tax to some services such as dry cleaning. Those progressive changes, along with the original Seminole gambling compact that Crist negotiated, would be the more responsible approach.
Instead, lawmakers focused on the fee increases and a cigarette tax increase. But those clearly will not get the job done. Florida is poised to cut between $268 million and $589 million from public universities — the very institutions that hold the answer to building a more diverse economy. The budget plans would provide less to public schools to train the brightest students or retain the best teachers. And they are likely to cut successful foster care and Medicaid programs, also resulting in lost federal matching funds.
Political posturing in Tallahassee — including "no new taxes" pledges — have elevated tax breaks for special interests over the needs of the state. If legislators negotiated in public and educated more Floridians about the gap between state revenue and public needs, they could build a case for smarter solutions than seeking a big advance from the Seminoles.