Don't be fooled by the "smart cap" that Republicans in the Florida Senate embraced Tuesday as a way to rein in government spending. It is a solution in search of a problem in a state where revenue collection has dropped precipitously in recent years, and it will only ensure that Florida — even once the economy recovers — won't have the means for meaningful investment in things like education and infrastructure. So far, the House has not shown interest in the measure. If that unfortunately changes, voters will be the only check against such shortsighted folly.
Trumpeted by Senate President and U.S. Senate candidate Mike Haridopolos, SJR 958 would ask voters in 2012 to amend the state Constitution to cap future state revenue collection at current levels plus population growth and inflation. That's a far more limiting standard than a 1994 voter-approved cap already in the Constitution that limits revenue growth to statewide personal income growth.
The current cap has only come close to being breached once, in 2005-06, when the runaway real estate market and hurricane recovery increased state revenue. The recession clearly took care of that aberration just a year later.
But this new plan from Haridopolos is far more draconian and would all but lock in the state's current fiscal crisis for the long term. Florida is poised in 2011-12 to significantly cut public school funding (Gov. Rick Scott has proposed 10 percent cuts) after four years of flat funding. With a revenue cap, even a state rebound won't ensure proportionately more resources for education unless there is exponential inflation or population growth. Nor is it clear how the state might raise capital for infrastructure needs. At least now, the state budget can grow as overall wealth in the state grows.
Also consider the consequences when the state endures catastrophic hurricanes, an offshore oil spill or devastating wildfires. The cap proposed by Haridopolos would require at least 60 percent of each chamber of the Legislature to agree to generate more revenue for a single year. Resetting the cap for subsequent years will require a two-thirds vote of both chambers. Supporters claim that should be easy after a catastrophe. That's a naive view of politics and an unnecessary hurdle when Floridians will need their government most.
The fact is, no one can anticipate what future challenges Florida will face or what resources may be needed to address them. Tying the hands of future Legislatures just to score political points now with an electorate angry with government spending is self-serving. House Speaker Dean Cannon should ignore Haridopolos' plan. If he doesn't and the House approves it, voters should reject it in 2012.