For more than a year, Florida Senate President Jeff Atwater has quietly filled the leadership vacuum in Tallahassee. That makes it all the more disappointing that Atwater has succumbed to the easy rhetoric of an election year by pledging to not raise taxes to help solve the state's potential $3 billion deficit. That's in his self-interest as he campaigns to be the state's next chief financial officer, but it's not in Florida's.
Atwater, a Republican banker from North Palm Beach, surely knows better. By rejecting any tax increases, he has now boxed the Senate — which has long served as a ballast to the extreme antitax House — into only two options: cut state services and borrow more money. The former might burnish his fiscal conservative credentials, but the latter doesn't.
Resisting more taxes might have seemed reasonable if this was three years ago, when the state was fresh off its real estate heyday and the budget was plump. But it's not. The budget for 2010-11 is the first in four years that is expected to be bigger than the year before. But only barely, and it isn't expected to grow nearly enough, even with the help of another $2.2 billion in federal stimulus funds to cover increased costs for everything from Medicaid to prisons to schools. Nor will Atwater and his colleagues be able to dip deeply into the state's trust funds — they've already drained them nearly dry.
For sure, more budget cutting will be required before Florida shakes off this recession. But by taking increased tax revenues off the table, Atwater would provide nothing to ameliorate the pain.
Consider what is at stake in just one small but vital state program — Guardian Ad Litem, that estimates it needs $1 million more in funding just to hold the line in serving 23,000 children who are in state custody because their parents have failed them. A largely volunteer agency, the program has cut its budget by $5 million in recent years, costing more than 70 positions and leaving 7,000 children without an advocate for them before the court. That's penny wise and pound foolish, as children with guardians are more likely to move out of state care sooner to a stable environment.
Beyond short-term damage, the no-new-taxes pledge also will hinder Florida's future, leaving little room to invest in higher education, environmental lands or economic development. There's no plan for what the state will do in 2011-12 when there's no stimulus funds to pay for the 20,000 teachers whose jobs were saved with the federal money. That is a particularly important question given that one of the state's top economists warned lawmakers last week that it will likely be 2015 before the state's economy returns to pre-Great Recession levels.
Atwater's pledge struck a populist note — "The people of Florida do not have one more dime to send us" — but it ignored other alternatives to raising revenue by eliminating tax breaks won by special interests. The Legislature could consider eliminating sales tax exemptions, collecting sales tax on Internet sales, and closing corporate income tax loopholes, just to name a few. Those are all far better alternatives than risking services for the state's most vulnerable or ignoring Florida's long-term needs.
Atwater has generally used his power well in the past 15 months for the benefit of all Floridians. He shouldn't deviate from that path now.