Faced with a historic decline in tax revenue, a prudent response by the Florida Legislature would be to rely on every available option to mitigate the pain: responsible spending cuts, modest use of reserves and new revenue. Instead, the focus so far is solely on cutting spending. If legislators are so determined to slash their way to a balanced budget, they should show Floridians soon what that spending plan would look like and give everyone time to digest it.
It would not go down easily. Cutting another $2.5-billion or so in spending for 2008-09 from a budget that already has been reduced by more than $1.6-billion this year would require cutting not just the fat but deep into the bone. Does this state really want to cut Medicaid spending so deeply that the poor cannot get access to health care in hospitals or adequate attention in nursing homes? Does it want to tell high school seniors there is no room for them at the University of Florida and Florida State University, and inform community college graduates they can no longer count on transferring to any university? Does it want to further overwhelm the court system, stop buying environmentally sensitive lands and give up on reducing class sizes for the time being?
And what about Gov. Charlie Crist's recommendations to expand access to health care and reduce greenhouse gases? If there is not enough money to maintain basic levels of services, there will not be any money for new initiatives to improve the quality of life.
Do not mistake the coming debate as a choice between siding with kids or the elderly, with education or social services, with the governor or the Legislature. This is a crisis that transcends the usual budget battle lines in Tallahassee. Relying entirely on budget cuts to get through what clearly is an economic recession that shows no sign of easing soon would test the pain threshold of every interest.
While House Republicans are repeating tired antitax rhetoric, their Senate counterparts sound more candid. Senate budget chief Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, has distributed charts that show what a $2.6-billion spending cut could look like. It would not be pretty. Distributing the pain proportionately, education would be cut by more than $1.4-billion and health and human services would be cut by more than $680-million. These are hypothetical, but they offer a serious look at the devastating consequences of a narrow-minded approach to balancing the budget.
Perhaps this sort of clear-eyed approach will jolt legislators into reality. If they are so determined to avoid raising new revenue, they should draft spending plans as early as possible that detail exactly how deep the cuts would have to be to balance the 2008-09 budget. Let those gutted budgets sit out in the sun for a week or two for all to see.
That should be enough time for Floridians to smell something rotten in Tallahassee and demand better.