FOR ALL THE TALK about doing things differently in Tallahassee, state leaders finalized next year's state budget the way it almost always has been done: in secret, with leaders getting what they want, regardless of what's in Florida's best interest. Gov. Rick Scott, who claimed during his campaign that he would be different and not succumb to the Tallahassee machine, now looks like a poser. To strike a face-saving deal on corporate income tax breaks, Scott tacitly approved decisions by House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos to steer millions to hometown projects that could have been spent on education, health care and other priorities. This isn't reform; it's business as usual.
Writing the state's $69.7 billion budget for 2011-12 was a difficult enterprise. Diminished property values and a sputtering economy have shrunk resources while needs have only grown, and the state faced a $3.7 billion shortfall. But Republican leaders put themselves further in the box when they refused to consider any additional revenue options to patch the state's safety net and ensure public schools lost no further ground.
The budget set for a final vote on Friday is balanced on the backs of state and local government workers, including schoolteachers and law enforcement officers. It requires them to contribute 3 percent of their income to the state pension plan after years without pay raises. Thousands of state workers will lose their jobs in a state with an 11 percent unemployment rate because of budget cuts or other special interest favors — such as the shortsighted plan to privatize prisons in 18 South Florida counties.
While Scott and Republican leaders claimed education a top priority during last November's elections, they cut public schools by $1.35 billion, spending 8 percent less per student next year. School districts will receive an average of $6,268 per pupil — or $1,038 less than just four years ago. The state's hospitals, which already lose money on Medicaid, will be paid 12 percent less for serving the poor, inevitably costing jobs and raising costs for everyone else.
Yet that didn't stop legislative leaders in the final week from stuffing the budget with at least $156 million in turkeys, or hometown projects, many of which received little scrutiny. Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, tucked in a whopping $46 million for the University of South Florida Polytechnic in Lakeland, which last year failed to survive then-Gov. Charlie Crist's line-item veto. It deserves no better fate now than it did last year.
Cannon, R-Winter Park, earmarked $8 million to fund research facilities that were never discussed by a committee and another $2.8 million for programs at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. House Speaker-in-waiting Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, secured $6.9 million for Pasco-Hernando Community College to build more classrooms in his hometown. And even a few Democrats were rewarded, including Rep. Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, who secured $250,000 for addiction research at University of South Florida. Some projects may be worthy, but its hypocritical for powerful lawmakers to look out for themselves and demand painful cuts of everyone else.
Nor did the impending pain stop lawmakers from approving $308 million in tax cuts, including a last-minute deal that will allow Scott to claim he cut the corporate income tax as he pledged in his campaign. Going forward, the smallest corporations will be exempt from income tax, costing the state an estimated $37 million. That's $37 million in tax breaks that could have gone into the classrooms.
Combined, the turkeys and tax cuts could have mitigated roughly a third of the public school cuts. But apparently that wasn't the priority for legislative leaders or for the governor despite their pro-education and transparent-government rhetoric. Scott pledged to be different on the campaign trail, but this is more of the same. If he really meant what he told voters, he should ready his veto pen. Anything less makes him just as phony as the politicians he likes to criticize.