Perspective: A modest proposal to pay teachers and law officers fairly and to give Floridians the power to rule themselves

Published Nov. 3, 2017

For a generation, the Legislature and a succession of governors have starved both education and law enforcement of support and resources, failing them so often that we Floridians must now take matters into our capable hands and amend the state Constitution to fix these problems.

To meaningfully improve our education and law enforcement capabilities, create well-paying job opportunities and safer neighborhoods, we need to pay classroom teachers and sworn law enforcement officers far more, we need to make college and high-tech training more affordable and accessible, and we need to find reasonable ways to pay for these costs. To achieve these goals, here are three amendments that voters should place on the ballot:

1. No elected public official in Florida should earn more than a public school classroom teacher or a sworn law enforcement officer, inclusive of all benefits. Furthermore, no member of the Legislature shall receive compensation, benefits or remuneration of any nature, which exceeds 40 percent of the average teacher's/law enforcement officer's earnings.

2. To pay teachers and law enforcement personnel enough, we need to raise more revenue in the least regressive way possible. I offer some details below.

3. Because the Legislature routinely ignores the will of the voters, Floridians should have the constitutional right to propose and enact statutory provisions through the initiative process. This would permit initiatives to become law without having to amend the state Constitution.

As a lifelong Floridian, I have witnessed the erosion of quality education, well-paying employment opportunities and safe neighborhoods. The common denominator driving each of these trends is the poor quality of our state political representation. These three proposals will permit the voters themselves to impose a change in priorities that our politicians are selfishly unwilling to adopt.

Teachers and police matter

Nothing matters more than attracting and keeping the best teachers and law enforcement officers — highly trained, qualified and well-compensated. Instead of throwing untold millions of tax dollars at random corporations in the promise to set up business and create jobs that seldom materialize, the public policy of this state ought to be to hire and retain the very best teachers and police officers. These are the seeds for success, prosperity and attraction of business and industry with high-paying jobs.

Any savvy, competent corporate manager will seek a location for siting their enterprise that already offers a well-educated and trained workforce in a safe and harmonious community. It's the best insurance for that company's commitment of resources.

Tying the politicians' compensation and benefits to those of teachers and police officers has two benefits. It relies on politicians' self-interest to compensate these public servants well in order to maintain their own level of pay. Secondly, with salaries and benefits adjusted to the upper levels of the national range, Florida will able to attract and retain the best and most talented of teachers and police, minimize turnover — a big money saver — and keep our brightest students in-state both for their educations and their careers. Florida will, for once, be able to place a highly qualified teacher in every classroom in the state.

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Florida already possesses the competitive advantages of a mild climate, comparatively low cost of living and a favorable tax structure, which ought to be a magnet for talented individuals to relocate or remain in state.

Don't trust
the Legislature

Recent history illustrates that the Legislature cannot be trusted to adequately implement and effectuate the express will of the people even when voters have amended the Constitution to make them clear. Whether it's acquisition of environmentally sensitive lands, classroom size limitations, medical marijuana access, dedication of lottery proceeds to educational enhancement or similar issues, the Legislature has routinely ignored the wishes of the people even when they amend the Constitution and instead marches only to the drumbeat of lobbyists and special interests laden with money to fund their next election cycle.

Consequently, it is necessary to bypass the Legislature to not only enact these worthwhile provisions but also to construct a method of doing so that will prevent the Legislature from again sabotaging the will of the people. To achieve this objective, trusts will be established to preserve, temporarily invest and disburse these funds bypassing any Legislative meddling or obstruction.

I propose that the necessary revenue to pay for a genuine middle-class standard of living for classroom teachers and law enforcement officers come from a variety of sources including so-called sin tax increases as well as slight increases in user fees. None of the sources I suggest would increase taxes on anyone for any necessity.

Follow the money

Based upon state tax and revenue records for 2016 Florida would realize additional revenue to be solely designated for salary supplementation of teachers and sworn law enforcement officers as follows:

1. A 5 cent increase in the tax at the pump for gasoline and diesel fuel would raise $528.7 million;

2. A $1 increase per pack of cigarettes would raise $1.3 billion;

3. An additional 1 percent sales tax on alcoholic beverages sold by the drink at bars would raise $25.1 million;

4. An additional 1 percent sales tax on alcoholic beverages sold at restaurants, clubs, package stores, etc., would raise $16 million;

5. A 5 percent increase in the cost of documentary stamps on deeds, notes and mortgages would raise $113.9 million;

6. A $1 increase in the per page charge for recording documents in the official public records would raise $50 million.

The initial total raised, based on 2016 collections, would result in revenues of $2.035 billion.

There are currently 180,000 certified teachers and 46,105 sworn law enforcement officers in Florida. The average of all Florida certified teachers' salaries is $45,723, and the average police officer's salary is $41,416. Florida has historically, and is currently, ranked at the bottom of salaries paid to our teachers and police.

A $10,000 raise

We should raise the entry level salary of Florida teachers and police officers by $10,000 a year. All currently employed public classroom teachers and police officers already earning above entry level wages would receive an immediate increase of $7,500. This increase would go to every classroom teacher, from second year kindergarten teacher to college professor. Every sworn law enforcement officer already on the job would also benefit from this same increase. There would still be funds left over and available to administer these provisions.

Savings and more revenue, in addition to the $2 billion plus, would be realized from the equalization of elected politicians' salaries and benefits to that of teachers and police officers. Employing entities will be prohibited from reducing, offsetting, or otherwise negatively affecting salaries or benefits to assure that these funds supplement the salaries and benefits of the teachers and law enforcement officers, not replace them.

In 2016 Florida sales tax revenue was $24.7 billion. Assuming 10 percent of all taxable sales transactions are in excess of $100, levying a $5 surcharge on taxable sales in excess of $100 would raise $1 billion. There are currently 225,000 students enrolled in the state's universities, state colleges and community colleges. This additional revenue will give tuition/scholarship expense relief of $4,565 to every student enrolled in year one and increase as revenues from sales tax increase each year. If the tuition assistance is limited to only in-state students the stipend would exceed $5,000 a year per student in year one.

A fair price to pay

Many of the funds to be raised under this regimen will be paid by tourists and other visitors to the state. Let's consider for a moment what all of the substantial financial benefits enumerated above might cost the average Florida family monthly. Assuming a 20 gallon fill-up four times a month, the cost is $4 a month. Smoking three packs of cigarettes a week would cost $12 a month. Consuming five alcoholic beverages a week at one's favorite establishment at $10 per drink would cost $2 a month. No other costs would be imposed unless the family records a document or buys or sells a parcel of real property.

Likewise, there would be no cost to a family at all for tuition/scholarship stipends unless one makes a taxable purchase in excess of $100. And, if so, the cost is just $5. Also, the tuition/scholarship funds would be available to every child/student in that family regardless of how many were enrolled at the same time. Can even the most anti-spending politician or pundit credibly argue that the benefits of this program don't exponentially outweigh the meager costs to elevate Florida into the upper levels of the nation in dedicated education and law enforcement resources and commitment?

The will of the voters

The final measure that I am now proposing is an amendment that would establish the right of the voters of Florida to propose and enact statutory provisions by the initiative process. This would allow initiatives to be enacted into law without having to amend the state Constitution. It would require a majority vote as opposed to a 60 percent vote necessary to adopt a constitutional amendment. The same legal tests and safeguards as for constitutional amendments, that is, sufficient petition signatures statewide, one title — one subject requirements in legal drafting, etc., would also apply to these proposals.

Two of the primary purposes for government are to defend and protect our citizens and take care to provide a quality public education for our children. These sober obligations are enshrined in our Constitution. The Florida Legislature and governor have failed us repeatedly in these duties. My ideas will put those decisions in the capable hands of Florida voters to create a better future for all of us in the Sunshine State.

Barry Silber is an attorney and businessman in Tampa. He is a former assistant attorney general, Cabinet Affairs attorney during two gubernatorial administrations and Florida Ethics Commission prosecutor, among other positions.