Legislature's reckless, pork-barrel budget

Published March 6, 2012

Forget the high-minded promises at the onset of the Great Recession, when Florida legislators pledged they would be prudent in setting priorities for state spending. The proposed 2012-13 budget set for a final vote on Friday is a study in pork-barrel spending, reckless policy and a shortchanged future. Lawmakers will boast how they lived within their means and still granted special interest tax breaks — but they can't claim they have invested wisely in Florida.

Lawmakers, mindful of last year's negative reaction after they cut more than $1 billion from public schools, restored most of that cut for next year. Yet they refused to raise any additional revenue by extending the sales tax to Internet sales or closing sales tax loopholes, which could have increased per student spending.

Despite lip service that higher education can fuel Florida's economy, the budget will cut spending on 11 public universities by $300 million. Yet Senate budget chairman JD Alexander still forced his colleagues to turn the University of South Florida's Lakeland campus into the state's 12th university, Florida Polytechnic University. The final university cuts, at least, were more equitable than the initial Senate proposal that gouged USF. But students still could face double-digit tuition increases while schools will spend less to educate them.

This is a another budget balanced on the backs of state workers, most of whom will face a sixth year without a pay raise. Those workers and local government employees who participate in the state pension plan also will be expected for the second year to pay 3 percent of their income to offset pension plan costs. But that could well change. A circuit judge in Tallahassee ruled Tuesday that the pension change is unconstitutional, a result that could ultimately require the Legislature to pay workers back $1.3 billion if the decision is upheld by the appellate courts.

Florida's hospitals will absorb a cut of more than 5 percent in Medicaid reimbursements that already cover less than the cost of providing care to the poor and disabled. And to make a political point against the Obama administration and the federal Affordable Care Act, House Republicans rejected $440 million in federal dollars to improve Medicaid reimbursement rates to doctors to encourage more to serve the poor. That is money that would have flowed directly into the state's economy, boosting health and employment.

Finally, Republican legislators can no longer claim their no-new-revenue mantra is not affecting public safety. Probation officers are seeing released felons less often. And the closure of the Hillsborough Correctional Institution means female inmates won't have access to a faith-based program — which Tallahassee has trumpeted for years as reducing recidivism.

This is a budget that has no money for public school construction or maintenance but will provide $55 million in bonded funds to private charter schools; includes just $8 million to buy conservation land under Florida Forever; and found $5 million for a private rowing complex in Sarasota County — just one pet project tucked into the budget at the last minute.

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This is what arrogance looks like in Tallahassee. Gov. Rick Scott should ready his veto pen. Come November, voters should hold their lawmakers accountable for their misplaced priorities and lack of vision.