There is little doubt that the Florida Legislature will vote along party lines today when it approves a patchwork plan to solve the state's $2.4-billion deficit. That was virtually assured when the House Republican leadership refused to consider raising substantial revenue during this special session, narrowing the choices to raiding reserves and cutting spending. Now it's up to Senate Republicans and Gov. Charlie Crist to ensure the debate is broader during the regular session, when the deficit for 2009-10 will be even larger and the choices even tougher.
Republican lawmakers today will tout the moves they have taken to limit the pain of the current spending reductions. They were creative in some areas, such as allowing nursing homes to tax themselves to draw additional Medicaid matching money from Washington. Nonetheless, the cuts will have short- and long-term consequences. Florida's public schools will have to get through the rest of the school year with $140 less per student. State universities and community colleges will be hit harder, with 4 percent cuts. For St. Petersburg College that's nearly $2.2-million this fiscal year; for the University of South Florida's three campuses it amounts to $12.3-million.
Among the longer-term impacts: The state won't buy additional environmentally sensitive land this year as the Legislature puts the Florida Forever program on hold; fewer people will receive mental health and substance abuse help; hospitals will receive less for treating the state's poorest citizens; fewer elders will receive in-home care and fewer infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities will be served. Despite lawmakers' efforts, these cuts will result in real pain for many Floridians.
Under the guise of fiscal conservatism, Republican lawmakers have refused nearly all efforts to raise additional money, save for approving higher traffic fines to avoid some court cuts. But the claim of fiscal discipline is a false one. The cuts would have been far worse if lawmakers had not taken $1.1-billion from the state's two biggest reserves, the Budget Stabilization Fund and the Lawton Chiles Endowment. That leaves Florida with about $800-million in those two accounts, down nearly $2.6-billion from just seven months ago. There's nothing fiscally conservative about that.
True fiscal responsibility requires lawmakers to begin addressing Florida's long-term financial future. Next year's potential deficit, an estimated $5.6-billion, will be difficult to resolve. That's $2-billion more than the state spends on corrections. It's twice what the state provides 11 public universities to operate. Unless legislators are determined to inflict serious damage on this state, they will have to raise revenue.
Among the viable options: raising taxes on cigarettes, closing sales tax exemptions, joining a multistate compact to more easily collect sales tax on Internet sales and raising gasoline taxes. Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens, has initiated a broad review of Florida's finances and promises he is open to a variety of options. But there has been no indication that House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, will cooperate. And Gov. Charlie Crist, while saying he is open to considering options, has so far failed to take the lead. That is unfortunate. It will take both Atwater and Crist to move recalcitrant House Republicans, and such a major effort to address a historic budget shortfall also should be bipartisan.
The sooner the governor and the Legislature acknowledge reality and develop a balanced approach to this crisis that both Republicans and Democrats can embrace, the better for all Floridians.