Gov. Charlie Crist is right. The $66.5 billion state budget he signed into law on Wednesday could have been worse. There will be no early release of prison inmates, no massive cuts to education and — thanks to his veto — no salary cuts for state workers. That does not mean everything worked out just fine and the governor and state lawmakers should pat themselves on the back for a job well done.
In fact, they failed to turn a crisis into an opportunity for visionary thinking. They did not create a broader, more stable tax base by closing sales tax exemptions and taxing some services. They did not make it easier to tax sales on the Internet, even though there was considerable support for it. They did not force universities to stop competing against each other and function as a system. They adopted some reforms to make state spending more transparent, but there was no widespread effort to make government more efficient.
Instead, this is a budget patched together with federal stimulus money, gambling proceeds, higher cigarette taxes and increased fees. Without the federal money, public education would have faced further cuts instead of a $25 increase per student. A tuition increase of up to 15 percent covers up another cut of more than $100 million in general revenue to universities. Trust fund raids helped balance the budget, but siphoning away that money means road projects will be delayed and affordable housing units will be even more scarce. Crist reasonably vetoed a raid on the concealed weapons trust fund that pays for the processing of permits, but it is hard to justify focusing on that one — beyond satisfying gun owners before the governor's campaign for the U.S. Senate.
At some political risk, the governor did the right thing by moving quickly to accept the federal stimulus money even as other Republicans were critical. With a $6 billion shortfall for 2009-10, Florida needed all the help it could get. But there is a down side. It enabled the governor and state legislators to avoid hard decisions about long-term tax reform. The federal stimulus money will be spent over the next 12 months, and the state tax structure still will not match Florida's aspirations. Despite Crist's optimism, the economy is not likely to recover any time soon and generate enough tax revenue to pay for quality schools, improved social services and better infrastructure.
Once again, Florida has adopted a short-term fix for a long-term problem. And by the time the alarm bells sound again, the governor and many state legislators will be more focused on the next election.