The financial crisis that grips Florida government now knows no modern precedent, but nearly as alarming as the plunging forecasts are the numbingly casual reactions in the capital. As schools and universities and courts and hospitals fall into a deepening budgetary sinkhole, state officials are offering little more than shallow platitudes.
The latest news, delivered this month by the state's Revenue Estimating Conference, is breathtaking. A budget that was $6-billion less than the previous year is now, only seven weeks into the new fiscal year, $1.8-billion in the hole. That means government revenues have dropped three consecutive years, a trend with no known historic parallel. Further, the income isn't projected to recover to 2006 levels until 2012.
To this news, key political leaders have reacted by pulling rhetoric off the shelf. Senate President Ken Pruitt: "We remain committed to balancing the needs of Floridians and investing in our future." House Speaker-designate Ray Sansom: "We will continue to meet the state's essential needs, and we will stand by the same principles that guided this year's budget: no increased property taxes; no additional borrowing; and no expanded gambling."
Gov. Charlie Crist is behaving as though the $1.8-billion number was made up. "It's not a fact," he told reporters, "and I have to deal with facts." But state law requires that Estimating Conference projections be used by all state agencies in "carrying out their duties under the state planning and budgeting system." What number would the governor propose to use instead?
The operative plan is more of the same small thinking that leaves Florida adrift. Crist wants to further deplete reserves, cut nearly $1-billion blindly across the board, and hope for better luck next year. There will be no special session, lest the work interfere with re-election campaigns. There will be no calls for true tax reform, lest lawmakers have to confront the reality that Florida manages to disproportionately tax the poor even as its total taxes rank 47th lowest in the nation.
As legislative leaders eagerly blame national economic conditions, they are missing some critical trends at home. The most troubling may be the over-sized loss of jobs and the precipitous drop in population growth. This past year, Florida led the nation in job losses with 96,800. Its population increased by the smallest margin in at least a half-century, and only 39,887 more people moved here than left here. That net-migration number is one-tenth the amount of just four years ago. One-tenth.
Something seismic may be happening in Florida, and all Crist and legislative leaders can talk about is property tax cuts. But outside the Capitol, educators and business and civic leaders seem to understand the dangers of short-term fixes, and the latest call for action comes from an unlikely alliance. Florida's People Florida's Promise includes social service advocates and the conservative Florida TaxWatch, and the group is asking lawmakers to consider such revenues as taxes on Internet sales or selective removal of sales tax exemptions.
"Declining revenues shall never be allowed to force the Sunshine State to leave its most vulnerable citizens in the dark," the group writes in its Declaration of Interdependence. "Legislative leaders must restore Florida's Promise by realigning priorities and by embracing bold, compassionate leadership."
These days, none of those words — bold, compassionate or leadership — seem to apply.