During a disheartening House debate last week, Rep. Ray Sansom repeatedly insisted lawmakers are not cutting the budget for 2008-09 even though it will be several billion dollars less than this year's. "That's just a myth,'' the Destin Republican said with a straight face. "We are not spending money we don't have.''
Sansom and other Republican lawmakers can keep repeating that lie to justify slashing spending without considering ways to raise additional revenue or significantly tapping reserves. That won't make it true, and it will not ease the pain this inadequate budget would inflict on Floridians. For a more realistic assessment, listen to Department of Children and Families Secretary Bob Butterworth.
Butterworth has been around. He has been a sheriff and a judge. He spent 16 years as attorney general. He is a Democrat handpicked by Republican Gov. Charlie Crist to run the state's most challenging department. Unlike most state legislators these days, he has the perspective that comes from experience.
"In my 40 years in public service, this is the worst year I've ever seen, the meanest I've ever seen,'' Butterworth told the Miami Herald as the House finished debate on its $65-billion state budget plan. "I've been a cop for a long, long time, and what they're doing here in the Legislature is producing criminals, they're producing victims and they're producing people who are going to be homeless.''
Those are strong words from a long-time public servant not known for hyperbole. Among the examples Butterworth cited: Cutting 200 employees in the food stamp program during an apparent recession when more poor people will seek help. Cutting child protection investigators, which will put more children at risk. Eliminating adoption subsidies for high-risk foster kids, which will increase the chances they don't find permanent homes.
Those facts don't bother Sansom, the House's chief budget writer and the incoming speaker. "I don't know that we're in a crisis,'' he said during the House debate. "I think we are meeting the needs of Florida.''
Tell that to low-income people who rely on the Medically Needy program or Medicaid for health care. In Pinellas County, hospitals would have their Medicaid dollars cut by $25-million. More than half that amount would come from Bayfront Medical Center and All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. In Hillsborough County, hospitals would lose more than $39-million in Medicaid money.
In any other era, legislators would have been too embarrassed to defend such numbers. Even with this historic drop in state revenue, there are options to lessen the cuts. Legislators could raise revenue by closing sales tax exemptions or making it easier to collect sales taxes on catalog and Internet sales. If they won't do that, they could at least embrace Crist's proposal to take $400-million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment to soften the blow on health care.
As House and Senate negotiators work on a final 2008-09 budget over the next three weeks, the real-world impact of their narrow-minded approach will become clearer. The rhetoric will become louder, and Floridians can decide for themselves whom to believe about the direction this state is headed: Experienced hands like Bob Butterworth, or partisan legislators like Ray Sansom.