Refusing to acknowledge the obvious need for more revenue and a fairer state tax system, the Republican-led Florida Legislature is once again cobbling together a roughly $68 billion state budget with duct tape, bailing wire — and considerable help from the feds. The House and Senate spending plans, due for floor votes this week, mop up money earmarked for long-term uses to fill short-term needs. Lawmakers have no real vision for the future, when the federal stimulus money will be gone and the state's needs will be more critical than ever.
Republicans contend voters want the state to make do with existing resources. But what voters really want is a vision for building a better Florida — not a budget built on contradictions because legislators are too consumed with their political futures to tackle the state's funding crisis.
• After spending weeks bashing Congress over the growing federal deficit, Senate Republicans were only too happy last week to embrace an additional $880 million in Medicaid stimulus money Congress is expected to approve .
• Both chambers are poised to pass millions in new tax breaks for businesses and yacht buyers while they struggle to find money for education and social services.
• At 12.2 percent, the state's unemployment rate is the highest in at least 40 years. Yet the House wants to raid $466 million from a road-building fund that could be used to stimulate the economy and create more jobs.
• The Senate, which quietly raised some staffers' pay last year after voting for a state employee pay cut, is now contemplating cuts to public libraries and requiring state employees to contribute to pension and health care plans.
• The House wants to turn the Lawton Chiles Endowment, established with tobacco settlement proceeds as a long-term way to fund child and health care programs, into nothing more than another checkbook that can be drained whenever the budget appears headed for a deficit.
And in what can only be considered election-year gimmicks, both chambers are ready to restore back-to-school sales tax holidays. The Senate also wants to rescind last year's higher fees for driver's licenses and auto tags, worsening the bottom line.
The lack of foresight now means 2011-12 will be even worse, after this year's more than $3 billion in federal stimulus funds are spent and Florida faces at least a $5 billion budget hole. No one, it appears, has a plan short of turning over the state's Medicaid system to HMOs, allowing offshore drilling or expanding gambling. All but ignored this session are ideas to make Florida's sales tax fairer — and increase revenue — by making it easier to collect sales tax on Internet sales, repealing some sales tax exemptions and closing other tax loopholes.
Only the possible compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe over expanded gambling offers a revenue bright spot. The deal, still in negotiation, could net a $430 million payment and another $150 million annually.
Lawmakers have proposed spending an additional $100 million more for higher education — which has been decimated in recent years by budget cuts. But that's barely a first installment in a grand plan to double higher education funding to $4 billion by 2015.
Republicans like to say they're building a budget for Florida to live within its means. They aren't. They're living on Uncle Sam's largesse and delaying for yet another year the real issue of how to pay for the services Floridians rely upon. That's not leadership.