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Nobody wins in lawmakers' budget games
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published October 9, 2007
The depth of the hole Florida lawmakers are digging in public education may be exceeded only by the height of their duplicity. In this year of the property tax cut, lawmakers are planning this week to crawl out of a $1.1-billion budget hole partly on the backs of property taxpayers.
For schools, the special-session reduction plan offers a cheeky bottom line: The budget will still increase by $965-million, but almost two-thirds of that money will come from local property taxes. Two-thirds.
Given the Legislature's high-profile mandate for cities and counties to reduce property taxes this year, its own requirement for increased school property taxes is more than a little underhanded. But that's not all. The increase in state money for schools doesn't even cover the budgeted amount for class-size reduction, putting it in direct conflict with the constitutional amendment. "Payment of the costs associated with reducing class size," says the amendment, "is the responsibility of the state and not of local school districts."
Don't expect lawmakers to exhibit any signs of shame this week as they move to pass their budget cutbacks. One senator is too busy making sure that people describe the cuts as "adjustments to increases."
If the gamesmanship on school taxes gets the job done this year, it will only add to the burden in future years. The latest long-range forecast for state government projects a $1-billion shortfall next year as well, and that assumes the Legislature digs deep into local property taxes for schools again. Lawmakers have pledged just the opposite. They say that if voters will approve a "super homestead exemption" in January, they will actually reduce property taxes for schools.
These maneuvers might be dismissed as more smoke and mirrors except that the state budget is beginning to hemorrhage. Last year was the first time the state's general revenue actually dipped from the previous year, and legislative analysts are so discouraged by what lies ahead they have written that "a structural imbalance is occurring." In other words, the fiscal train is about to leave the track.
Five years ago, Sen. Ken Pruitt argued that the way to make state taxes more fair and durable was to remove sales tax exemptions on some freeloaders and extend it to various professional services as well. A broader base, he said then, could allow a lower rate and still bring greater stability to state revenues.
Pruitt is now Senate president, and he is singing a different tune. He told Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet: "I believed it then. At the same time, we're here to face the budget cuts. We're not about raising taxes."
In other words, as he faces a greater crisis ahead for schools and universities and human services, Pruitt has lost his nerve. He's willing to follow the lead of House Speaker Marco Rubio and take money from reserves, property taxpayers and creditors - and still leave Florida's institutions coming up short. Someday, surely, these games will end.