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    A Times Editorial

    'Do the people care?'

    In the Legislature, the House and Senate both offer problematic budgets, but at least the Senate's effort seems designed to stir taxpayers to some action.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 30, 2003

    Both houses of the Florida Legislature are ready to debate their budgets. Neither bill is a good deal for the state. But only the Senate admits that.

    Ask President Jim King, or any of the senators who wrote it. The best they will say of it is that they did the most they could with the little they had.

    It spends down about $1-billion in money they won't have again to pay current bills for education, health and other essentials. That's like depending on the piggy bank for the monthly mortgage. What happens a year from now, when the piggy bank is empty?

    "This kind of creative financing we do is not sustainable," conceded Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the rules chairman. "It's intellectually dishonest . . . We're just continuing to dig a deeper hole for our leaders and deeper debt for future generations."

    Even with that, the budget doesn't provide for enrollment growth at the universities and junior colleges, fails to restore the Medically Needy program to which some 27,000 Floridians owe their lives (though King has promised this will be put back in), spends less to keep children from becoming criminals (but no less on prisons) and provides for no new judges or pay raises for teachers and state employees.

    The House of Representatives' budget is in different ways much worse. It digs deeper into the trust funds for affordable housing and other pledged-revenue programs, provides no money for enrollment growth or inflation in the public schools, cuts higher education by $118-million, violates the promise that Bright Futures would pay full tuition for the brighest students and 75 percent for others who qualify, puts the College Prepaid Tuition trust at risk, imposes scores of false economies on state agencies, and proposes to convert the highly successful Healthy Kids Corp., which currently relies on the private insurance market, into just another underfunded Medicaid program.

    It would also eliminate the entire staff on which the Supreme Court relies to screen incoming cases and slash support positions throughout the court system. These acts of vandalism mean expensive delays and backlogs throughout the justice system. This reflects more than the mere ignorance and inexperience which abound in the House; it has an odor of malice to it. Certain leaders there bear well-known grudges against the court.

    The most important difference between the two budgets is that, unlike the Senate, the House's Republican leaders pretend that theirs is just fine. In their view, the purpose of the Senate budget is to provoke a public clamor for new taxes or for slot machines at the racetracks.

    There's some truth to that. As King remarked the other day, the underlying message of the Senate budget is a question: "Do the people care?"

    But even if King took slot machines off the table (as we think he should), there would still be the problem that no matter the need, no matter who is hurt, House Speaker Johnnie Byrd and his acolytes remain closed-minded to any tax increase, however measured, however targeted.

    It is too kind to call this hypocrisy. So long as House leaders are willing to impose record tuition increases on college students and their families, demand higher pharmacy co-payments from Medicaid clients who can't afford them, shift more and more costs to the counties, and rely on property tax growth for two-thirds of the total education increase in the state budget, their hands are hardly clean of new taxes. These expedients are new taxes by other names.

    It would be better, and fairer, to be honest about it. To postpone the intangibles tax exemption already scheduled for this year would raise another $135-million to apply to the budget. To keep the exemption and double the rate on the remaining wealthy taxpayers would yield $300-million, enough to save the Medically Needy program. Plugging loopholes in the corporate profits tax could turn up nearly $1-billion.

    But the Senate isn't willing to plug new taxes into its budget if there's no chance the House will hear them. That's why King asks the question, "Do the people care?" Time is about to run out on the answer.

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