The Florida Legislature begins debate today on a grim 2008-09 budget that promises to be grossly inadequate in every respect. As the House and Senate discuss their spending plans, there will be plenty of self-serving speeches about belt-tightening in a slumping economy. Big numbers will be tossed around like pocket change, and at times the budget jargon will be hard to decipher.
Here are the real-world consequences: Your younger child's public school will have less to spend next year. Your older child will have a harder time getting into college, and if she gets in she likely will pay higher tuition and certainly sit in even larger classes. Your grandparent will find fewer staffers to help him in the nursing home. Your struggling, uninsured neighbor will have a harder time finding health care. Land that the state would have preserved will be developed, court cases will drag on longer and fewer child abuse investigators will mean more children will be at risk.
Welcome to Florida, home of sun, sand, a delusional governor and a heartless Legislature.
With a $2.5-billion drop in state revenue, business as usual is not an option. Yet Republicans are making a bad situation worse by insisting on only reducing spending. A smarter approach would mix cutting spending with using some reserves and adding some revenue to mitigate the pain.
Florida could join some two dozen other states that tax a portion of an out-of-state corporation's profits that can be tied to the operation of its in-state subsidiaries. That could raise more than $360-million, more than enough to save the Medically Needy program that covers poor people not eligible for Medicaid. A House committee killed the bill.
Or Florida could join nearly 25 other states in making it easier to collect sales taxes on catalog and Internet sales. That could eventually raise more than $1-billion, more than enough to start investing in higher education instead of starving it to death. Legislative leaders refuse to hear the bill.
For the first time in years, per student spending in 2008-09 will be less than the previous year. Higher education spending will be cut by more than $100-million, which likely means enrollments will be frozen and faculty members will be laid off. Hospitals stand to lose more than $200-million in Medicaid, forcing them to reduce services or pass the costs to paying customers.
Ever-optimistic Gov. Charlie Crist prefers to look on the bright side and gives the Legislature plenty of room. But there is no silver lining in these budget documents, and his spending priorities on renewable energy, health care and education have been ignored. Crist is going to have to inject himself into the debate sooner and more forcefully for his sunny vision of Florida to have any relationship with reality.
In some ways, this governor and this Legislature are paying for the sins of their predecessors, who refused to broaden the state's tax base, backed big tax cuts and worried little as long as growth kept bringing in more cash. This is a difficult time for this state and its residents. But the Republican-led Legislature is making it more painful than it has to be by refusing to consider more options and raise modest revenue.