Finally, it appears, the shell game the Republican-led Florida Legislature has been playing with the state budget to avoid raising general taxes is coming back to haunt them. Gov. Charlie Crist, who is weighing whether to sign the 2009-10 budget into law, is under considerable pressure to veto raids on special accounts designated for specific operations such as transportation, condominium regulation and the administration of concealed weapons permits.
Lawmakers swept nearly $590 million from dozens of state trust funds to prop up their proposed $66.5 billion budget. What the unexpected outcry has laid bare is the hypocrisy of legislative leaders who have been unwilling to consider broad tax reform but are willing to renege on promises they made when imposing special taxes or user fees to finance specific government services.
Consider, for example, the gasoline taxes motorists pay every time they fill up. State law says that money is to go toward transportation. But in next year's budget, $120 million will flow instead into the general fund to pay for everything from schools to prisons. The trust fund raid will have significant repercussions for Tampa Bay, stalling improvements for Interstate 75 in Hillsborough County. And the Department of Transportation warned the raid will have a ripple effect for years as projects further down the pipeline are delayed as well, including more improvements for I-275 through Tampa.
In these tough financial times, the Legislature is engaging in a short-sighted version of robbing Peter to pay Paul. It proposes sweeping $92 million from the state's affordable housing trust funds, which are underwritten by a portion of the state's real estate transfer taxes. Those funds help subsidize low-cost apartments and help families buy homes. Aren't both still needed in this recession?
Lawmakers want to sweep $7 million in fees collected from condominium owners at $4 a pop. The money is supposed to go toward regulating condominium sales and associations. In the midst of the foreclosure crisis, when there are considerable disputes within associations over delinquent condo fees and other issues, is there suddenly less need for oversight?
And lawmakers want to take $6 million from the fees paid by applicants for concealed weapons permits — even though Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson has warned that will impede his staff's ability to finish background checks within 90 days. That puts public safety at risk since after 90 days, the law allows applicants the right to request the license be issued without a background check.
There is no doubt lawmakers needed to be creative during the recent session to cope with a $6 billion shortfall. And at this point Crist would risk unraveling the entire budget if he began sparing too many trust funds from the raids.
But the outcry further underscores that Florida's tax structure is inadequate to meet the needs of the nation's fourth largest state. When lawmakers start raiding low-income housing funds to pay for social services and taking concealed weapons permit fees to operate prisons, the system is broken.