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A Times Editorial

Florida budget plans are shortsighted, irresponsible

There is no way to sugarcoat it. The separate state budget plans that the Florida House and Senate will start debating today are shortsighted and irresponsible in every respect. By refusing to balance spending cuts with some new state revenue, the Republican leaders are inflicting unnecessary pain on the poor and the elderly, on first-graders and college students, on commuters facing traffic jams on our roads and citizens seeking justice in our courts. Instead of investing in Florida's future, lawmakers are accelerating a decline into mediocrity.

This is the predictable result of trying to bridge a $3.7 billion spending shortfall with no new money after already cutting billions in spending during the Great Recession. Spending cuts that would have been unthinkable in other eras are accepted as unavoidable. For example, both the House and Senate would cut public school spending by more than $400 per student, taking it to its lowest level since 2005. Yet Floridians are supposed to be grateful that the proposed cuts of more than 6 percent are less than the 10 percent cut recommended by Gov. Rick Scott. Let's hold the applause.

The outlook is just as grim in other areas. Public universities, which have seen their state funding cut nearly 25 percent over the last three years, face another cut. So do the overburdened state courts, just as Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady — hardly a spendthrift — begs for money just to keep the doors open through the end of April. Money to build roads, which creates jobs? Cut. Money for beach renourishment, land preservation and Everglades restoration? Cut in one spending plan or the other. Money for hearing aids for the poor, prescription drugs for the sickest and assistance for the long-term unemployed? Cut, cut and cut.

The deviousness of these budget plans stretches beyond the direct spending cuts. While legislators are opposed to tax increases, they are shifting more costs of government once shouldered by the state onto the backs of Floridians. State employees — at least those who manage to hang on amid thousands of job cuts — will go without raises and pay part of their pension costs to free money for other uses. College students face tuition increases of up to 15 percent and reduced financial aid. Poor people on Medicaid will be forced into managed care to save money. There are strong arguments for requiring state workers to contribute to their pensions, reforming scholarships such as Bright Futures and controlling soaring Medicaid costs. But these approaches are too radical, and the motivation is saving money rather than reforming policy.

A more enlightened Legislature would take a more balanced approach to lessen the pain. It could make it easier to collect the state sales tax on Internet sales as a House committee approved on Tuesday. It could start closing sales tax exemptions on goods and services. It could attract more federal matching dollars in health care, social services and unemployment compensation. It could free millions in private gifts to universities waiting for public matching dollars. Instead, Gov. Rick Scott and the Republicans who control the Legislature have backed themselves into a corner by focusing solely on cutting spending and refusing to raise revenue.

It could be worse. So far, the Legislature is resisting Scott's proposals to reduce spending even further to pay for ill-advised tax cuts. And the House and Senate spending plans, while both less than the current $70 billion budget, are different enough to leave room for some compromise on a final bill. But these are budget proposals with spending cuts that are too deep and cost shifts that are too unfair.

Florida will never cut its way back to prosperity. Businesses and families cannot be expected to invest their futures in a state that cares so little about investing in its institutions and its people.

Florida budget plans are shortsighted, irresponsible 04/05/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 5, 2011 6:55pm]
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