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Legislature

Florida's government shrinks

A report shows low taxes and small government. It also shows Floridians aren't overtaxed.

By STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 8, 2003


TALLAHASSEE -- A new report by a legislative watchdog agency has found that Florida has lower taxes and fewer public employees than most other big states.

The report was released Friday by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), which studies state programs and reports to the Legislature.

The findings confirm the success of Gov. Jeb Bush's conservative philosophy: a reduced tax burden, largely through tax cuts, and a smaller government. But it also suggests something his critics say: Floridians are not overtaxed.

The report said Florida had the second-lowest state and local taxes as a percentage of personal income among the 12 largest states in 2000, the most recent data available. Only Texas ranked lower.

The study also said Florida has 49 government employees per 1,000 residents, which makes it 47th among states. The state dropped from 39th to 47th from 2000 to 2001 largely because of Bush's aggressive privatization of government programs, such as human resources, payroll and personnel.

Only Pennsylvania had fewer government workers among the 12 most-populous states.

The study surfaces as Bush, the House and Senate begin writing a state budget with the deepest cuts in more than a decade.

Both houses of the Legislature are run by Republicans, but the Senate wants to consider increased revenue to stave off deep program cuts, while the House and Bush oppose any new taxes.

Both sides can find useful ammunition in the report.

For example, OPPAGA noted that Florida relies heavily on borrowed money, and now ranks third-highest among the 12 biggest states in debt as a percentage of personal income. Only Texas and New York rank higher.

The report noted that a decade ago, under Democratic rule, Florida's debt was actually higher compared to other big states than it is now.

Bush's critics, mainly Democrats, accuse him of giving out tax breaks while plunging the state deeper into debt. Bush wants to borrow $2-billion more to pay for an ambitious school construction program to reduce class sizes.

The agency that produced the report is itself targeted for cuts in Bush's proposed budget. He wants to merge OPPAGA with the state auditor general's office and cut the combined budget by about 50 percent. Senate Republicans are opposed.

Friday's report was not requested by the Legislature but was done "because of continuing interest on the part of the Legislature," the report said.

"We did not try to influence the debate," said Gary VanLandingham, OPPAGA's deputy director. "We're nonpartisan."

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