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Market day for sacred cows

Published Oct. 13, 2005

It's a stubborn recession after all. Barely a month after passing next year's budget, the Florida Legislature must hold a special session today to come up with another $160-million for this year's budget. There is general agreement on tapping assorted trust funds for a little here and a little there in preference to cutting school budgets yet again. Many of the trust funds are actually flush with cash; they can afford it. But the session could snag on Gov. Lawton Chiles' proposal to tap some of the wealthier funds for more than the 7 percent that Senate President Gwen Margolis would prefer to charge across the board. Lurking beyond are the larger questions of why the state maintains so many sacred cow trust funds in the first place and why the governor and Cabinet can't have at them during fiscal emergencies. This is what Chiles is referring to when he says the executive branch needs to be able "to manage the fiscal affairs of the state in a prudent fashion." Out of next year's $29.2-billion budget, trust funds will equal $17.8-billion, well over half.

Much of that money, it's true, represents federal aid that must be kept apart or state revenue contractually pledged to pay off bonds. Some of it consists of specific fees, such as student dormitory rents, that are reasonably restricted to the purpose for which they are collected. But a lot of the money is earmarked only because some special interest had its way with the Legislature.

As it happens, that describes one of the largest trust funds that may be in dispute today: A $100-million kitty called the "Nonmandatory Land Reclamation Trust Fund." It's of keen concern to the phosphate lobby. For years, progressive legislators fought to make the phosphate miners pay a mineral severance tax such as other states collect on oil or coal. They struggled also to require the miners to repair and reclaim the moonscapes that lay in the wake of their giant draglines. When the victories finally were won, they were only partial. The miners would be financially responsible for reclaiming only their subsequent diggings. And a portion _ currently about 20 percent _ of the severance tax would be withheld from schools and other general revenue supplicants to pay for reclaiming land the miners already had despoiled.

The trust fund is accumulating money faster than it can spend it, which would seem to make the case for the $30-million Chiles wants to borrow for the state's current emergency. But some environmental lobbies are nervous. So is Polk County, site of the most moonscapes, which wants them back on the tax rolls as soon as possible. And so too is the phosphate lobby, which fears that instead of repaying the loan the state would simply extend the reclamation program beyond the year 2000 _ and postpone also the 20 percent reduction in severance tax that is presently scheduled for the same time. (At least one environmentalist, ManaSota 88's Gloria Raines, would prefer the land not be reclaimed lest unwary people buy homes on it and risk exposure to carcinogenic radon gas.)

"The fund should be repaid," argues Charles Lee, senior vice president of the Florida Audubon Society. "The trust fund ought not to be raided for other purposes."

Not even to help keep the schools open? There's what's wrong with having so many earmarked funds.