Gov. Charlie Crist is being less than candid with Floridians in handling the state budget crisis. One day he quietly signs a terribly inadequate 2008-09 state budget that is almost $6-billion less than the one lawmakers approved a year ago and claims it meets the needs of the state. The next day he tells state agencies he will hold back an additional 4 percent because of slumping tax revenues, forcing more painful cuts before the new budget even takes effect July 1. While this approach may be prudent, it lacks transparency and prevents taxpayers from seeing the full ugly picture and expressing their views.
At least the Legislature had a full-throated public debate about the consequences of such deep spending cuts in a $66-billion budget they approved just six weeks ago. At least lawmakers made choices about which social services to cut and which to protect, minimizing cuts to public schools and scraping up enough money to keep the courts open. Now Crist is imposing across-the-board cuts that unfairly treat every program the same — and the budget year doesn't begin for more than three weeks.
A 4 percent holdback would not be so distasteful if it wasn't for the timing, coming just as deep spending reductions already are being made. It means universities that are freezing enrollments, eliminating positions and watching prized professors and administrators flee to other states have to cut even more. It means school boards that already are freezing teacher salaries and cutting assistant principals have to get their calculators out again. In Pinellas, it means that a new deal with the public defender, state attorney and judges to avoid bringing some misdemeanor cases to trial won't be enough to get by.
Don't be fooled by the Republican rhetoric that there are no other choices beyond cutting well past the fat and into the bone. Lawmakers also gave Crist the authority to tap into state reserves without the full Legislature's approval if the state starts running a deficit. And there are plenty of ways to raise revenue and create a fairer tax system, including closing sales tax exemptions, extending the sales tax to services, making it easier to collect sales taxes on catalog and Internet sales, and closing loopholes that enable corporations to avoid paying taxes here by accumulating profits elsewhere.
Unfortunately, all of those are nonstarters for Republicans who are content to starve higher education and other government services while waiting for property tax cuts to magically revive the economy. It's been nearly five months since Crist urged voters to pass Amendment 1. Anyone see any houses selling because Save Our Homes benefits are portable?
The gap between state revenue and recurring costs will continue to grow, and Florida cannot cut itself to prosperity. Even after cutting spending and taking hundreds of millions of dollars from reserves, the Legislature left no wiggle room in the 2008-09 budget. State economists released a new economic outlook statement Friday that shows the state will take in less general revenue than it plans to spend. It's making up the difference only through fees, reserves and budget gimmicks — and there is no room to absorb further revenue declines.
For the governor to require state agencies to hold back 4 percent of their spending so soon after the Legislature left town suggests lawmakers did not do their jobs well. It is their responsibility to write a balanced budget that meets the needs of the state, and they should come back to Tallahassee in a special session and do it right and in public.
They won't, of course. They would rather that Crist quietly keep cutting while they run for cover — and for re-election.