Gov. Rick Scott's budget priorities for next year don't add up — and it's not just his numbers that don't make sense. With the economic picture brightening, Florida should be reinvesting after years of devastating spending cuts that hurt higher education, social services and law enforcement. Yet the governor wants to keep starving government and hand a half-billion dollars in tax breaks to special interests.
Scott issued a position paper this fall calling for $500 million in unspecified tax cuts and $100 million more in state spending cuts for 2014-15. Never mind that Florida cut $9 billion in spending in recent years because of the recession and home mortgage crisis that caused dramatic drops in tax revenue. Never mind the state still spends less per public school student than it did before the economic collapse, or that the portion of higher education costs covered by the state has been declining while college tuition has been rising. Never mind there is little or no money to meet the demand for new roads, to fix and repair schools, or to buy environmentally sensitive land.
While Scott jets around Florida in his private plane to brag about promised jobs in return for business tax breaks, the state faces more than one expensive crisis. Two examples: At least 20 children known to the Department of Children and Families have died since April, primarily from abuse or neglect, and the child-protection system needs an overhaul. And the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie River and its estuary are being polluted by an algae slime caused in part by polluted water released from Lake Okeechobee. Legislators are looking at spending a few hundred million dollars to help clean up that environmental mess.
It's common for state agencies to request more money for new programs than the governor will recommend or the Legislature will approve. This year is no exception. But the requests reported by Steve Bousquet of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau are not for bells and whistles. The Department of Corrections wants millions to reopen prisons to accommodate a rising inmate population. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement wants money to handle the workload for background checks on gun buyers. The Florida Parole Commission needs money to tackle the backlog of ex-felons seeking to have their civil rights restored, and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles wants to start replacing the trooper positions eliminated during the recession.
There are ways to save money so it could be redirected to pressing needs. Scott and the Legislature could accept $52 billion in Medicaid expansion money over the next decade, which would save the state millions. They could overhaul sentencing guidelines so nonviolent drug offenders would receive treatment instead of more expensive prison time. But neither the governor nor many legislators are pushing those issues.
Scott and state lawmakers are not focused on Florida's long-term future. They are all about their re-election prospects next year. To them, that means cutting taxes, finding more money for public schools and letting other pressing needs slide even as the economy improves. It's a short-term strategy when the state needs long-term investment in its infrastructure, its institutions and its people.