Here is one snapshot that illustrates the difference between Tallahassee and the real world. After state lawmakers wrapped up negotiations over a meager state budget this week, Gov. Charlie Crist proclaimed himself "so grateful to this Legislature for what they have done.'' Hours later, Pinellas school officials proposed cutting salaries for teachers and other employees by 2 percent and closing up to 10 schools.
Today is the last day of a most depressing legislative session, and lawmakers will approve an inadequate $66-billion budget that the governor already has indicated he will sign into law. They will congratulate themselves for refusing to raise taxes and scraping together enough money to avoid some of the worst cuts for Medicaid and social services. But they failed to rise to the challenge created by a slumping economy and a historic decline in revenues. The consequences of their shortsightedness will be felt by all Floridians.
Even if teachers in Pinellas and elsewhere wind up with frozen salaries instead of salary cuts, there will be a price to pay in the classroom for an average $131 per student cut in spending. College students, if they wedge themselves into public universities that already have imposed enrollment caps and hiring freezes, face a 6 percent increase in tuition but fewer class sections and larger class sizes. Nursing home patients will be more vulnerable because of relaxed staffing ratios and a $10 per day cut for each Medicaid patient, and public hospitals will have to shift more costs to paying patients to make up for their Medicaid losses. More children will be at risk because of cuts to child abuse investigations deep enough to force Pinellas Sheriff Jim Coats to consider handing the job back to the state. This is a Legislature struggling to merely survive an economic recession and hoping for better times instead of offering a vision for a megastate that deserves better.
Yes, it could be worse. Legislators appropriately tapped into the Lawton Chiles Endowment Fund to avoid the worst cuts in health care. They shifted property tax money from school construction to school operating expenses. They provided money for subsidized health insurance for another 38,000 kids. They spent other one-time money on recurring costs, and at the last minute they scraped up $50-million for Everglades restoration to avoid an embarrassing goose egg.
But there is no getting around some warped priorities in this budget. For the first time in memory, more money will come from local property taxes than from state general tax dollars for public schools. In the midst of a reeling real estate market, money for affordable housing is being cut by nearly a quarter. In an economic downturn where displaced workers are returning to school, there is a tuition increase and reduced spending for community colleges.
Legislators raised fees for drivers' licenses and boat registrations. But they would not dream of closing sales tax exemptions. They could not fathom forcing corporations to stop avoiding state taxes by shifting assets elsewhere. They could not stomach making it easier to tax Internet or catalog sales. Tax fairness is not their forte.
Neither is forward thinking. The 2008-09 state budget relies on difficult spending cuts, one-time patches and a prayer. If those prayers aren't answered and the economy does not improve soon, many of those stopgap strategies won't work the next time. What happens then?