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CRIST'S BUDGET OFFERS GIMMICKS AND A SMILE

As the law requires, Gov. Charlie Crist has outlined his proposal for a state budget in an era when tax revenues are declining and spending needs are rising. Fortunately, the Legislature is not required to follow the governor's recommendations. Rather than significantly cutting spending and - gasp! - raising revenue, Crist takes the easy way out, ignores the economic storm clouds and hopes sunnier days are just around the corner.

Ever the optimist, the governor makes a risky bet that raiding state accounts and counting on more gambling money will get the state through 2008-09 and that by the middle of next year the economy will have rebounded and happy days will be here again. But with Florida flirting with a recession, unemployment rising and the housing market stalled, the odds don't look good. And raiding trust funds and endowments for more than $1-billion to pay for recurring costs only creates a bigger hole to fill the following year. It is a short-term strategy that lacks vision, and many of the governor's fellow Republicans in the Legislature aren't likely to embrace it.

The least objectionable part of this effort to paper over a $2-billion shortfall would be spending $400-million out of the $2.4-billion Lawton Chiles Endowment. The state has been spending only the interest on the tobacco settlement money, and it is not unreasonable to use part of the principal for health care in an economic downturn. Part of it would go to a promising experiment to provide more health care to uninsured families. But lawmakers would have to acknowledge this is a one-time investment that would need to be covered by other money in the future.

Much more troublesome is Crist's raid on trust funds, or accounts that pay for specific programs ranging from affordable housing to land purchases. The state needs to systematically review all trust funds and weed those programs out that should compete with education, social services and other demands for general tax dollars. But grabbing money dedicated for one purpose and spending it on other recurring costs is irresponsible.

There is a better way to get through tough times: an appropriate mix of targeted spending cuts and reasonable revenue increases. For example, the governor and state lawmakers could close some sales tax exemptions or make it easier to collect the existing sales tax on catalog and Internet sales. That may be wishful thinking given the Republicans' antitax rhetoric, but they already are breaking their no-new-taxes pledge.

Even as Crist touts the property tax cuts offered by Amendment 1, his proposed budget relies on an additional $338-million in property taxes to pay for schools. Legislators pulled the same trick last year. So they are far from pure in opposing tax increases. They just don't want taxpayers to know it.

Crist has set some appropriate spending priorities, including more money for the development of alternative energy and for health insurance for uninsured children. But there are terrible shortcomings even after all of his budget gimmicks, particularly in higher education. Avoiding tuition increases and cutting aid to students attending private universities makes no sense as overcrowded schools freeze or reduce enrollments and impose hiring freezes.

Confronted with difficult decisions about cutting spending and raising revenue, Crist takes a pass and gambles on hope and a prayer that the economy improves. The Legislature will have to take a more realistic approach with a clearer eye toward the future - and it won't be pretty.

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