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Budget of Oz

Published Aug. 31, 2005

It's hardly uncommon for legislators to disagree with the governor over how Florida's money should be spent. Never have they been so far apart as now over how much is available to spend. To hear Jeb Bush, there's $1.1-billion for normal growth and for enhancements such as the class size amendment. The true figure, says Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, is an insignificant $53-million. Is this merely a billion-dollar misunderstanding? No, it's worse than that.

Pruitt dramatized the essential difference when he told Senate colleagues, "Paying one credit card with another is not an option for us."

Indeed, it should not be. But that's what Bush forced the Legislature to do last year. Now, he wants to do it again.

To satisfy the governor's insistence on more tax cuts and no new taxes, the last session balanced this year's budget with $1.1-billion in revenue that everyone knew would not be available for the next fiscal year. They diverted money on a one-time basis from environmental funds. They used revenue from the intangibles tax, even as they voted for a delayed cut that takes effect this summer. They appropriated money from the estate tax even as Congress voted to dry up that source. The Democrats, and _ to their credit _ some Senate Republicans, warned to deaf ears that the Legislature was digging a deep hole.

And now Bush would dig the hole even deeper by raiding earmarked trust funds for $785-million to meet unrelated general revenue expenses. This is, as Pruitt said, using one credit card to pay another. It is draining one's savings to meet a mortgage payment. Trouble is, who pays the bills next year? The man behind the curtain?

Bush's budget is fiscally unreal and irresponsible. Florida is not the Land of Oz. There are no magic shoes. Florida needs, as most senators acknowledged Thursday, either to raise taxes or cut spending in ways that would stagger the public: costing lives, wasting futures, wrecking the schools and universities, letting public parks and works go to ruin. The draconian details remain to be defined by the respective budget subcommittees, but let no one doubt that they will be dreadful.

New spending has averaged $2.3-billion over the past five years. The $53-million Pruitt foresees for next year _ even that could vanish if today's revenue-estimating conference comes in even more dourly than expected _ is not enough to meet enrollment growth in the public schools, let alone class size reduction or anything else.

A legislative report by the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (another agency the governor wants to abolish) recently documented that Florida has relatively low state taxes and fewer employees compared to other states. Florida can afford to spend more.

But the governor and House leaders are still mewing the mindless refrain, "No new taxes." Not even this is true. The Bush budget would unload on the counties hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax burdens. It includes new taxes disguised as user charges.

Is there some secret agenda at play? Have the Libertarians already taken over?