The terms of the debate
To hear Gov. Jeb Bush talk, Florida has hit a little budgetary pothole, nothing that can't be patched by an upturn in the economy and by voters wising up about school class sizes.
He presents himself as proud of his spending plan for next year, though he would cut universities by $148.8-million, give public schools no money to combat inflation, eliminate 2,900 state jobs, hand counties a $64-million bill for juvenile detention, abandon teen drug prevention centers, undermine environmental protection and growth management and close the state library.
The debate Gov. Bush wants to have with the 2003 Legislature is a limited one. He is asking lawmakers, who begin their annual session on Tuesday, to do little more than referee intramural disputes over money. Don't question the bottom line, he is saying, because the state already has too many taxes. Of the cutbacks, he is saying, blame voters for a constitutional amendment that requires schools to reduce class sizes over the next eight years.
What he leaves for lawmakers is the room to haggle over whether the Department of Children and Families should get more at the expense of Department of Environmental Protection, or whether troubled teenagers are worth more than seniors without prescription drugs, or whether universities should get some of the dollars that might otherwise go to public schools.
The terms of that debate are a trap for Florida. They are driven by a doctrine that holds government in contempt, and they ignore overwhelming evidence of the dangerous deficit in the way this state conducts business.
Florida is, contrary to Bush's rhetoric, a low-tax state. It ranks 45th among states in its taxes as a percentage of income, and the governor's own "Destination Florida" commission took note of this distinction recently, arguing the state should do more to advertise its low-tax ways. Worse, the way the state collects these taxes is to charge the poorest 20 percent of working families at five times the rate of the wealthiest 20 percent. The sales tax is so riddled with loopholes that the state collects $17-billion a year while it exempts $23-billion.
The state also has done, historically, a poor job of supporting education and social welfare agencies. Pick your choice, and Florida is ranked at or near the bottom, nationally: per capita spending for higher education, 50th; per capita spending for K-12, 49th; overall general revenue spending per capita, 49th. The state Board of Education recently projected a shortfall of 20,000 teachers next year, yet salaries are so low that other states are successfully luring Florida teachers away.
The governor wants to blame this budgetary crisis on class size reduction, but even Senate Appropriations Chairman Ken Pruitt, who opposed the amendment, sets that record straight: "We would have had a budget problem with or without the class size amendment." The $628.2-million Bush proposes for class size reduction represents only 4.2 percent of the education operating budget, and he only pretends to pay for it. He pooled that money with other operating dollars to produce a bottom line increase of 4.3 percent per student. That won't pay for inflation.
"The people who voted for the class size amendment believed that that would come on top of the normal budget, not in place of it," says Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "We're going backwards if we are going to fund the class size amendment at the expense of everything else."
If lawmakers are willing to join in this charade, then they will indeed take the state backward. If they are willing to think for themselves, they might pull from the legislative shelves a series of studies that have been produced over the past three decades that all point to a structural unfairness in the tax system and to a need to increase education funding.
They might study the 21 counties where, in the past decade, voters have voted to tax themselves more for better schools. They might read the words of Associated Industries president Jon Shebel, who told the Tampa Tribune the Legislature should consider an income tax: "We need people to step up and put their political careers on the line."
As they begin their annual session of lawmaking on Tuesday, legislators have a choice. They can take the long view, ask the tough questions and be willing to explain the state's dilemma to their constituents. Or can they join Bush and pander to people's worst instincts about taxes. Floridians await their decision.
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