If Gov. Charlie Crist honestly views the state's $1.5-billion shortfall as merely "an opportunity to continue to tighten our belt," he is living in a budgetary bubble. The new financial forecast reflects an ominous trend for at least the next four years and is directly at odds with his promises to schoolteachers and university presidents.
The day of reckoning is fast approaching, and Crist will need to employ more than breezy metaphors. State government revenues last year dropped for the first time in at least three decades, and the Revenue Estimating Conference on Wednesday forecast growth for 2007-08 of less than 1 percent and for next year of only 5 percent. In a state with increasing population and expanding needs in education, social services and public safety, that's a formula for financial disaster.
Worse, that's only half the equation. Crist and the Legislature are asking voters in January to exempt so much of their homes from property taxes that the state would need to find an extra $7-billion over the next four years merely to plug the hole left in the public schools budget. Legislative leaders have insisted the property tax cut would not harm schools, but the September session called to deal with the budget deficit is certain to leave schools hurting more. It also is certain to remove any pretense that lawmakers can, as their leaders have claimed, "hold schools harmless" from the proposed property tax cuts.
Public schools are under constitutional mandate to reduce the number of students in each classroom, and universities are in such financial straits they are planning to freeze enrollment next year. Further cuts this year will only make a financial recovery next year all the more unlikely.
As a candidate, Crist promised to give raises to schoolteachers and to fulfill the voter mandate for small class sizes. As recently as last month, he told university presidents he would join them in a crusade to boost their puny state funding. Somehow, though, he is unable or unwilling to connect the budgetary dots. You can't give schools less and get more.
Florida has lived off population growth and tourism for so long that it has been easy to ignore its unstable tax structure. But the drop in revenues this time goes to something more fundamental than the current housing downturn. This state has no income tax, comparatively low corporate taxes, a narrowly applied sales tax and has in recent years cut or repealed taxes on wealth and commerce. The deficit is now more akin to a sinkhole.
Sinkholes are not so easy to fill when ground remains unstable, which is why talk of belt tightening doesn't get the job done. The governor is about to be tested by fire, and he doesn't seem to even notice the heat.