On the campaign trail, Gov. Rick Scott promised he would dramatically cut taxes and slash state spending as he dismissed anyone who questioned his math. The budget recommendation he delivered this week falls short of those impossible pledges and remains so irresponsible that legislators should set it aside and start fresh. State lawmakers from both political parties already are reacting with appropriate skepticism, criticizing the governor's plan to decimate public education and cut thousands of state jobs to deliver tax cuts. Now it's the Legislature's responsibility to take a more pragmatic approach.
Florida faces considerable financial difficulties without Scott needlessly adding to the pain. The Republican-led Legislature has no interest in raising additional revenue, meaning a $3.6 billion budget shortfall will require extraordinary cuts to state government even without any tax cuts. To his credit, Scott identified some of the state's key fiscal pressure points that require reform: Medicaid, state pensions and prisons.
But the governor would worsen the state's fiscal crisis with $1.6 billion in unnecessary tax cuts. He contends lower taxes, including a $500 million drop in already falling property taxes and shrinking the state's modest corporate income tax from 5 percent to 3.5 percent, will make Florida more attractive to businesses seeking to relocate. But what would Scott say when those businesses ask about public schools?
The governor recklessly proposes a 10 percent cut in per student spending after years of stagnant funding and just as Florida schools are showing modest gains in student achievement. Scott claims the cut doesn't break his campaign promise and that he would keep state funding steady while not replacing federal stimulus money. Such parsing was never mentioned on the campaign trail, and he misled voters with his unworkable budget plans.
Even where Scott correctly identified places for reform, lawmakers should not accept his antidotes carte blanche. He is right to call for government workers to contribute to their pensions as all other states require. But his proposal to save $1.4 billion by requiring workers to contribute 5 percent of their income starting in July is too much to ask after five years of no general raises. A phased-in contribution would be fairer and more realistic.
Scott's wholesale embrace of managed care for the state's 3 million Medicaid patients also is raising serious concerns before legislative committees. Would there be access for patients? Would there be nearly the savings Scott projects? Or would more indigent patients clog up emergency rooms, costing taxpayers even more? States need to get a handle on Medicaid spending, but that is going to require a more thoughtful approach by both state and federal government.
The governor is on firmer footing with his plan to shift the focus of prisons toward rehabilitating rather than warehousing criminals. That's good public policy, and it saves money in the long run. But his enthusiasm for privatizing more prisons and juvenile justice facilities is suspect, given the checkered performance of the state's current private prisons.
Scott unveiled his budget plan before sympathetic tea party supporters in a church in Eustis and said he has one goal: attracting business investment to Florida. Critics of his plan, he suggested, didn't hear the message that voters want jobs that only can be delivered with smaller government and lower taxes. If only it were that simple.
Voters want efficient government, and nobody likes tax increases. They also want strong schools, good transportation and a clean environment. Scott has identified some appropriate areas for reform, but he has yet to transition from political posturing to responsible policymaking for all Floridians. It's up to lawmakers led by Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon to create a vision for Florida that better balances financial reality with state priorities.