Bankrupt in Tallahassee

A Times Editorial
Bankrupt in Tallahassee

Leadership is as lacking as money as the governor and Legislature scramble to cut at least $1-billion from a budget that already was inadequate.

St. Petersburg Times,
published October 4, 2001

Some prophets wait a lifetime or longer to be vindicated. For Larry Fuchs, Florida's former chief tax collector, it took merely two years. Fuchs said in the summer of 1999 that Florida was "functionally bankrupt" and that the next inevitable recession would swiftly prove it. Though some leaders listened, it was mostly to laugh -- none more raucously than Florida's new governor, Jeb Bush, who boasted just a few months ago that he and the Legislature were on track to cutting taxes by a cumulative $6-billion before the end of his term. Instead of expanding the revenue base, as Fuchs urged, they willfully shrank it.

As Fuchs warned, and as reality confirms, nothing but bone and muscle is left to cut now that the economy has soured and terrorist atrocities have cast an even deeper pall over Florida's T-shirt economy. Florida currently ranks 44th in the percent of its personal income spent on public schools, 47th in higher education, 41st in total spending, and 47th in state employees per capita. Now the Legislature must return to Tallahassee to cut this year's already lean budget by at least $1-billion, with even greater reductions looming for fiscal 2003.

Some of the suggestions issuing from agencies can only be described as tragic: Eliminate assistance for medically needy adults, at a time when more people will be out of work and without insurance. Abolish substance-abuse treatment for people on probation, at a time when experience predicts crime will increase. Keep more juvenile offenders in adult prisons, a sure way to waste their lives and cost the state infinitely more money over time. Spend less on child support enforcement, at precisely the time when Florida will need to spend more. Considering all this, Bush wasn't simply spinning the people of Florida but mocking their intelligence when he tried this week to downplay talk about "cuts" in favor of such euphemisms as slowing the growth in spending. When you have to educate more children for proportionately less money, it's a cut, and to call it anything else raises the question of which is more bankrupt: the budget, or Florida's leadership.

It would be grossly wrong to cut essential spending without postponing the intangibles tax cut now scheduled to take effect in January. The Legislature's outnumbered Democrats aren't the only ones saying so. To their credit, so are some Republicans in the Senate. But the $120-million that would recover, though of great value symbolically, is barely a dime on the dollar in terms of the deficit. The bottom line is that Florida will have to suffer through this crisis because it cannot borrow. The Constitution does not allow deficit spending, and in any case the state has virtually tapped out its bonding capacity. It is axiomatic, of course, that government does not raise taxes in the teeth of a recession.

But there could not be a better time to reform the base, as Senate President John McKay has been preaching -- to eliminate irrational exemptions, to reduce the burden for those taxpayers who are already pulling more than their fair share of the weight, and to position Florida to cope better with the next recession, whenever it comes. That means taxing services, as might have succeeded in 1987 if the law hadn't been so poorly drawn and compromised to the liking of the more persuasive special interests. The tax on services was withdrawn and replaced with a penny hike in the tax on goods, leaving the state even more at the mercy of skittish tourists. As that was going on, former Gov. LeRoy Collins observed in one of his columns for this newspaper that Florida "finds itself in a very difficult, even inconsistent, position. On the one hand we are spending millions to advertise and encourage people to move here. At the same time we seem blinded to the fact that it will take many more millions to provide the public services these new residents will require." Serving in public office, he went on to say, "has heavier demands than riding in parades and being surrounded by sycophants uttering empty words of praise and agreement."

Bush's administration is staffed too heavily by such sycophants, and by carpetbaggers who knew nothing of Florida when they came here and seem to care nothing about what will become of Florida after they have moved on.

Though Fuchs remains in retirement, what he prophesied has come to pass. It is the issue that will define next year's campaigns. Something that Abraham Lincoln said in 1862 is true today: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present." As truth was not the first casualty of that war, so should it not be the first casualty of the one in which Florida is caught up today.