St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2001 The person to blame for this sad state

TALLAHASSEE -- Is it time to pass the word that friends don't let friends move to Florida? To print it on bumper stickers, buttons and T-shirts? To warn our grandparents, kids or grandkids that, as much as we love them and would like to have them near, this false paradise is not for them? That Florida nurtures only the selfish and self-sufficient?

Or so the Legislature's recent special session would leave one to think. It was so bad as to embarrass even the leadership. The appropriations chairpersons are negotiating quietly to see what might be done better if the legislators are called back. There would be no point to it, though, unless the House is willing to give a bit on taxes.

As matters stood when the House snatched its marbles and went home, Florida has shown the world once again that "we're cheap, and we're proud of it," to quote former university chancellor Charles Reed on his way to California four years ago. Worse, we seem to be getting even cheaper and meaner. Few people seem to be bothered by that, and they do not include those who are in control of the government (if anyone is).

The Legislature was brought back to Tallahassee last month to confront an estimated $1.3-billion budget deficit that had been building even before Sept. 11. Many promises that had been made would have to be reconsidered. But which ones? Would everyone share the pain? Or only some?

The most obvious of these questions was whether the Legislature would suspend a tax cut scheduled in January for the owners of stocks and bonds. The reduction would cost the state about $130-million and save about $193 on average for each of the businesses and individual and joint filers, less than 5 percent of the population, who are subject to the intangibles tax. To postpone this tax break seemed like a small enough sacrifice to ask of them, as they're already paying barely a third of what they did before the Legislature began dismantling the tax three years ago.

The Senate wanted to defer the tax cut. So did the Democratic minority in the House, along with some Republicans who laid low. Even the governor came around. House Speaker Tom Feeney and a band of other radical Republicans did not. To keep from meeting the Senate in a conference committee where the tax might be on the table, the House adopted the Senate's budget intact -- even though almost everyone agreed, although for different reasons, that it is terrible.

If that budget becomes law (its constitutionality and the governor's support are both in doubt) here are some other things that will happen.

Florida's Bright Futures scholars will have to pay their own university tuition and fees if they want to attend the next summer term (as the law says students have to do at least once before earning a degree.) That, too, breaks a promise -- the promise of a scholarship for doing well in high school. Unlike the forthcoming intangibles tax cut, it takes away an earned benefit that had already materialized. (Some promisees must be less important than others.) A typical Bright Futures scholar at the University of Florida would be out of pocket by about $977 next summer, five times what the average taxpaying stockholder would save if the tax cut stands.

They'll terminate prenatal care to some 5,100 working-poor women July 1. A few may find charity elsewhere, but it's a statistical certainty that others will bear dead, dying or brain-damaged babies. "This one hurts," Rep. Sandra Murman, R-Tampa, a budget subcommittee chairperson, told the House. She voted for it anyhow. To this Legislature, "Choose Life" is only for license plates and other people.

Whatever that saves the state, it eventually will cost more to care for those brain-damaged babies. Owing to term limits, that will be for other legislators to worry about. Feeney, for one, expects to be in Congress.

They chopped $187,000 from the university programs for autistic kids, for whom there is usually no help elsewhere. Private health insurance typically excludes any developmental disorder. Whenever some legislator tries to fix that, Blue Cross and the others make sure the bill stays stuck in committee. It's the state's responsibility, they say.

Nobody comes to Florida for its generosity, which nobody expects to need. Life deals out nasty surprises, however, and few could be nastier than what's going to happen July 1 to some 23,000 senior citizens who will be turned away for prescription drugs and some 92,000 who will no longer be eligible under Medicaid for dental, visual and hearing services. These cuts save $38-million.

The conventional wisdom that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure does not operate in Tallahassee, where they'd rather spend a dollar to send a kid to prison than a dime on prevention programs, such as the Marine Institutes, that might keep him out. They cut $9.4-million from the Department of Juvenile Justice's aftercare program, even as they cautioned it to see that "all maximum and high-risk offenders receive the appropriate level of supervision."

As for the teen smoking prevention program, the most successful thing Florida does, they cut that nearly in half. Even TaxWatch, which said they hadn't cut overall spending enough, called that "foolhardy."

What I have listed so far could be spared by postponing the intangibles tax cut. Feeney says he would be willing to have the House take this up, but doesn't think the votes are there.

Everything they cut, including the $133-million fund to recruit and retain Florida's most endangered species, the public school teacher, could be restored by overhauling the sales tax, which exempts almost half again as much ($22.6-billion) as the $15.7-billion it actually raises. Most people would pay less, but as those who would pay more are the Legislature's true constituency, it is hard to imagine any legal means by which Senate President John McKay, who is passionate about tax reform, can get it done at the next regular session, which will also be his last. Without tax reform, it will be time for those bumper stickers, buttons and T-shirts.

With some of the pending cuts, such as prenatal care, the human damage could never be healed. Other programs would never be restored even after the economy recovers. Caseload growth and inflation would take precedence. Ten years ago, during the last recession, the Legislature saved $63-million by scrapping state funding for the seven-period school day, a fairly recent reform dedicated to helping students learn more. Though the budget for public schools is now $1-billion larger, that money was never put back.

Who should we blame for the sad state of Florida? The answer may surprise you.

Not the governor, despite his inadequate preparation for the job and his bias that taxes are a burden rather than an investment.

Not McKay, even though he should have learned from bitter experience that there is no such thing as a fair fight with Feeney.

But that's not to blame Feeney, even though he is an inviting target.

Nor even the dutiful drones who would follow his leadership anywhere, even off a cliff.

Nor even the remorseful ones like Murman, who know better, but who rationalize that they can do more good inside the power circle, never perceiving that their only power is to follow orders.

Nor even the outrageous ones like Rep. Kenneth W. Littlefield, R-Dade City, whose typical speech would fill two Goodyear blimps and who is so enamored of his own voice that he took the House floor the other day to declare how much he was enjoying the opportunity to cut the budget and how much he was looking forward to cutting it even more.

No, to see who's to blame, just look in the mirror.

The probability is about three-to-one that you either voted for that crowd or that you didn't vote at all, which was the same thing as voting for them.

If this does not describe you, I apologize. If it does, I say you want too much for too little. You want a government that will paradoxically protect you from everything including taxes. You want safe streets at someone else's expense. You want doctors and nurses on whom you can safely bet your life, not caring where they're going to come from if the schools and universities continue to sustain such neglect. You believe the Tallahassee propaganda about downsizing government and outsourcing jobs, but you don't think about what it means for the workers whose privatized jobs will not have health insurance but who will still be paying the payroll taxes that fund your Medicare. It doesn't worry you that maybe the budget cuts will kill babies.

Maybe I have you all wrong, but no one would know it from the election returns.

So enjoy. Trust that your luck doesn't turn, leaving you to wish that you lived in some other place that is not cheap and would not be proud of it. http://www.sptimes.com/News/110401/Columns/The_person_to_blame_f.shtml