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Lawmakers get ready to crumble on budget

This is the big enchilada. This is Leo DiCaprio against Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York. This is the last episode of Survivor and American Idol and The Bachelorette rolled into one.

Well, okay. It's certainly all that if you care about our state. But even if you don't, it's still kind of interesting, showdown-wise.

In our state Capitol this year, the theory of "No New Taxes, No Matter What" will at long last be put directly to the test. It has been a catchy campaign slogan for years; let's see how it fares as a philosophy of government during an actual crisis.

Our own Johnnie Byrd of Plant City, now the speaker of the state House, is the ultimate no-new-taxes fellow. The state has to "live within its means," Byrd says over and over. The state must tighten its belt, just like a typical Florida family. And so on.

Because Johnnie Byrd says this, everybody under him in the state House says it as well. Like speaker, like member, because the members know what is good for them. Byrd likes to call his outfit a "member-driven" House, which it is, at least in the sense that the members are driven like cattle toward Dodge City in the old westerns.

This puts Jim King of Jacksonville, the president of the state Senate, in a most ironic position _ he is the guy wondering whether Florida needs to raise more cash after all, instead of turning teenage girls out of shelters, halting the curing of drug addicts and shutting down the state library, that sort of thing.

All these years, King has been your basic, solid, good-for-business Republican. Now the House paints him as another FDR, a traitor to his class. His hometown paper, the conservative Florida Times-Union, practically threatens him with tar and feathers if he as much as picks up an extra dime off the sidewalk.

Of course, Republicans have run both chambers of the Legislature for a few years now without raising taxes. They didn't need to while times were pretty good.

But things are coming to a head now. The state has never faced such grim prospects in writing its budget for the next year. Never.

The Florida Senate got the grim news on Tuesday. Consider these items:

+ New kids in grades K-12, and new enrollment in universities and community colleges.

+ The constitutional amendment for smaller class sizes.

+ Restoring the state's Medically Needy program.

+ Foster care for kids, even just at the levels requested by Gov. Jeb Bush's department head.

+ State spending to get Florida's share of federal matching dollars.

+ Any new cultural or historic grants, library construction, water and sewer loans and other water projects.

To pay for all of these things, which could easily cost $2-billion or more, the Senate estimates that Florida will have a grand total available of . . . $53-million.

Fifty-three million dollars.

By the Senate's yardstick, we are running a couple billion short. Not as bad off as some states, as Gov. Jeb Bush likes to point out. But not exactly dancing in the clover either.

Byrd is going to win.

The House, backed by Gov. Jeb Bush, will hold firm on the question of not raising a dime of new revenue for the state. The Senate will give up and say, don't blame us. The Senate's only moral victory will be in stopping some of Bush's budget tricks, such as abolishing certain trust funds for a one-time gain.

If this is what Floridians really want, then they will have to support what happens.

A lot of good-guy stuff is going to get stiffed. The marine institutes, as an example. Help for the medically needy. Proven programs that have gotten young women out of trouble and back on a path to a successful life. All those do-gooders in the world accustomed to getting a little money in the budget through their local lawmaker will get zero.

$$% 'em all. That's what the people want.

Right?

"What if," King asked the other day, "we go home and brag to the voters that we didn't raise your taxes _ and they tell us, but this time we wanted you to?" That is the key question of 2003.

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