The Florida House and Senate are poised today to pass separate plans to reduce the state's $2.4-billion deficit. Both lack vision and creativity. The Republican leadership refuses to raise new revenue beyond court fees and traffic fines, and relies too heavily on spending cuts and reducing reserves to dangerously low levels. It is a short-term strategy that inflicts more pain than necessary on schools, social services and health care and leaves the state in a financially precarious position.
There is no denying that tough times require unappealing choices. The most prominent example involves Florida Forever, the state's land-buying program that has preserved millions of acres. The Senate's plan makes sense in temporarily halting new purchases and redirecting millions to programs that provide direct services to Floridians. Other choices on the table in the House are even tougher to swallow: Is it smart to use millions meant for roads and affordable housing to keep public schools and social services from suffering even deeper cuts? Is sacrificing future investment the best way to lessen the pain of the present?
Even now, public schools will see nearly $500-million in cuts. Hospital fees for treating Medicaid patients will shrink further, for a total of nearly 12.6 percent less in 18 months. Other services facing hefty cuts include mental health and substance abuse programs, services for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities, in-home care for seniors and programs for foster children. The pattern is familiar: The most vulnerable are routinely the most susceptible to spending cuts.
There is no broad debate in Tallahassee about the state's priorities, goals or long-term financial future. Lawmakers are nibbling around the edges. They are embracing modest efforts, such as the governor's $10-million loan program for small businesses, and pushing political agendas, such as a provision that would make it easier for the state to demand public school employees take pay cuts.
As Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink pointed out Thursday, plans to spend up to $1-billion from two key state accounts are shortsighted and irresponsible. The Budget Stabilization Fund is essentially the state's savings account. The Lawton Chiles Endowment, established with proceeds from the state's settlement with tobacco companies, pays for health care for children and the poor. Sink warned that legislators could leave the state with virtually no cushion in the savings account to ensure that bills are paid, and effectively kill the Chiles endowment.
Legislators would have been wiser to consider new revenue. Three options could be adopted quickly: A $1-per-pack cigarette tax would raise at least $700-million annually; a 1-cent-per-gallon gas tax hike would raise about $104-million; or the state could adopt the gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe that guarantees $100-million annually. Then lawmakers could have a more thorough debate on Florida's tax structure, including reviewing outdated sales tax exemptions, during the regular session that starts in March.
Instead, lawmakers are postponing tough decisions and digging next year's budget hole even deeper by raiding trust funds and draining reserves. The only hope is that this painful special session serves as a reality check and that lawmakers will be more willing to honestly confront Florida's financial crisis in the spring.