The election's message of change has not made it to the Florida Legislature yet. The Republicans remain in control, and they are still pretending like it's business as usual.
During Tuesday's organizational session, the Senate quickly voted to relax fundraising disclosure rules. Then the House Republican caucus took off Wednesday morning for a retreat financed by lobbyists and other Republican contributors at an upscale Destin resort. And leaders of both chambers have pledged to lessen government regulation on business and lower taxes — the same message the party has delivered since taking control of the Legislature 12 years ago. Plus, there was scant mention of how to address the state's fiscal crisis — other than to suggest continued use of fast-dwindling reserves.
"My hope is we'll have enough money in trust funds to keep the budget balanced for the entire year," new House Speaker Ray Sansom of Destin said. Such a sentiment is naive at best and reckless at worse. Florida has already burned through nearly $1-billion in reserves this fiscal year and has roughly $2.5-billion left to tap. But there's no guarantee when this economy will rebound, and the same old rhetoric is increasingly out of touch with reality. Yet new Senate President Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach insisted that the state spends too much, taxes too much and overregulates. That sounds a lot like Sen. John McCain's message in the presidential election, and Floridians did not buy it.
There are a couple of bright spots. Atwater said he would appoint a bipartisan committee to make recommendations before the regular session starts in March about how to help Florida's economy rebound and to address the state's long-term funding needs. Another committee, however informal, could not do any worse than the Florida Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. And Atwater's second in command, Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, suggested Republicans might finally be open to making it easier to collect the state sales tax for items sold over the Internet. That is a long-overdue change that would lead to a fairer tax policy and more revenue for the state.
But there is much more to be done, particularly when it comes to the state's deteriorating finances. Economists on Friday will release the latest projection for revenue collections for this year, and it is expected to be at least $1-billion less than estimated just three months ago. A response to that can't wait until March, regardless of what leaders may hope.
This election was about change. Apparently, state legislators did not get the message.