A budget only special interests could love

Published Mar. 12, 2012

Look no further than the 2012-13 state budget headed to Florida Gov. Rick Scott to understand that special interests remain firmly in control of Tallahassee. The $70 billion spending plan is a study in niche tax breaks financed on the backs of local governments, the courts, public schools, universities, hospitals and in-state retailers. With every legislative seat up for re-election this November, voters should take note.

Republican leaders proudly boasted last week that they once again cut taxes to the tune of $750 million. What they don't say is the overwhelming majority of tax breaks won't accrue to average Floridians, unless they take advantage of a three-day, $32 million sales tax holiday in August. Yet Floridians will lose so much more.

When the dust settled late Friday night, Republican leaders had restored just $844 million of last year's $1.35 billion cut to public schools. And due to enrollment growth, the additional cash will translate to just $150 more per student next year, far less than the $542 cut per student in the current school year. Just how far has Florida's commitment to public school students fallen in five years? About $750 per student.

Never mind the high-minded rhetoric at the beginning of session about building a higher education system capable of diversifying the state's economy. Lawmakers cut funding to state universities by $300 million, but ordered the institutions to spend their reserves to make up the difference. And now the Legislature's willingness to let institutions raise tuition up to 15 percent a year on their own — and a new bill to allow unlimited tuition increases at the University of Florida and Florida State University — looks like just one more way they can shift responsibility.

Other cost shifts include $30 million less for operating the court clerks offices; forcing counties to pay millions in disputed Medicaid bills; and reducing Medicaid reimbursement rates to hospitals and nursing homes — thereby leaving millions of federal matching dollars unclaimed.

Yet lawmakers continued to let out-of-state, Internet-only retailers off the hook for collecting Florida's sales tax. That will cost the state an estimated $500 million in revenue next year and undercut every Florida retailers' ability to compete with online rivals.

In the final day, legislators agreed to cut taxes for AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications services at least $35 million annually, and possibly 10 times that; approved a bank-suggested scheme that authorizes up to $1.5 billion in tax credits tied to the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund for insurers; and cut businesses' unemployment taxes, further exacerbating the state's ability to recover from another economic downturn.

Tallahassee has missed yet another chance to build a brighter future for Florida, siding with lobbyists instead of Floridians. All 160 seats of the Legislature are up for grabs in November in this redistricting year. Voters should ask candidates exactly whom they plan to represent.