Florida has one of the lowest state tax burdens in the nation, a long list of unmet needs and a Republican-controlled state government that treats any talk of a tax increase as heresy. Yet Gov. Rick Scott wants voters to approve a constitutional amendment to make it even harder for the Legislature to raise taxes. That's election-year pandering, not leadership.
Scott, who is expected to run for the U.S. Senate next year, wants legislators to put a constitutional amendment on the 2018 ballot that would require state lawmakers to approve any increases in taxes or fees by a supermajority vote instead of by a simple majority vote. And if the Legislature refuses to do it, the governor is prepared to demand that the Florida Constitution Revision Commission put the amendment on the ballot.
There is no need for further fiscal handcuffs in a state where this governor and most state legislators have abdicated their responsibility to responsibly meet the needs of the nation's third-largest state.
Florida regularly ranks among the bottom 10 states in spending per student in public schools. It has several universities that rank among the nation's largest but only one, the University of Florida, that ranks among the 50 best. It is tens of billions short in meeting its transportation needs and ranks at the bottom in mental health funding. The state has all but given up on buying environmentally sensitive lands, caseloads for social services are too high and the courts are inadequately funded. Yet this governor wants to financially starve the state to death as he rides the waves of record tourism and another building boom that won't last forever.
The reality is that Florida has an antiquated, 20th century tax system that is structurally unfit for the 21st century economy. It is one of only seven states that have no state income tax. Its state sales tax on goods is regressive, outdated in a service-oriented economy and notoriously unreliable in times of economic hardship. The gas tax that pays for roads and the gross receipts tax on communication services that pays for school construction have been stagnant or declining because of more fuel efficient cars and technological advances. Yet instead of reforming the tax system, this governor wants to further strangle it.
A governor focused on Florida's long-term future rather than his own would be proposing reforms to make the state's tax structure a better fit for today's economy. The Constitution Revision Commission, which meets just once every 20 years, could ask voters to remove the ban on an income tax from the state Constitution. It could tie a modest income tax aimed at high incomes to a school property tax cut for everyone. The sales tax on goods could be extended to cover services, and the additional revenue could be used to lower the sales tax. The sales tax could be collected on all Internet sales, which would level the playing field for local retailers. And there are other innovative ways to raise revenue for transportation and the environment so the state would not be so reliant on outmoded, declining taxes.
At this point, of course, even prudent tax reform that would be revenue neutral — much less tax changes that would raise money to meet real needs — is a pipe dream. This governor and these legislators look no further ahead than their next election. The Constitution Revision Commission, which should rise above such political calculations, has been stacked to brush off any calls for significant tax changes.
If the status quo is bad enough, Scott's proposal would make the situation worse. Writing into the Constitution a requirement for state lawmakers to approve any tax or fee increase by a super-majority vote would not position Florida to reach its full potential. It would be a life sentence to mediocrity.