A powerful legislative panel is expected to tap into state reserves today to start reducing a nearly $1.5-billion budget deficit. While following Gov. Charlie Crist's recommendation to use $672-million from a reserve account to cut the deficit roughly in half would be reasonable, let's be honest. This is nibbling around the edges at a bigger problem and putting off tougher decisions until after the November election.
The governor's sunny optimism is not going to make the budget storm clouds disappear. The budget deficit for 2008-09 is only going to grow. Another revenue estimate will come out in November, and legislative leaders ought to start planning now for a special session of the Legislature before the end of the year. The stakes are too high to avoid a full public discussion about the direction of this state and what it takes to pay for merely adequate, much less superior, government services.
Crist already has directed state agencies to hold back 4 percent of their budgets every month. For now he is holding off borrowing money from the Lawton Chiles Endowment, which generates interest from tobacco settlement money to pay for child and health care programs. But those also are stop gaps, and they would only push the time for straight talk to the 2009-10 budget, which has a $3.5-billion projected deficit.
After months of grim news about job losses and home foreclosures, two more warning signs already popped up this week about the state's shaky finances. Moody's Investor Services gave Florida a negative outlook, a warning sign that its bond ratings are at risk of being downgraded. Today, the legislative panel that will consider dipping into reserves to cover part of the deficit also is expected to shift $48-million into the education budget because fewer lottery tickets are being sold than expected. The money will come from a state account filled with such unclaimed property as uncashed state checks and forgotten utility deposits.
That's the equivalent of rummaging between the cushions of the couch for spare change to cover the mortgage. It only underscores the need for the state's elected leaders to think beyond the next revenue estimate and the next election.