More vision, less denial

A Times Editorial
Published February 24, 2008

Dark clouds hang over the Sunshine State. Florida desperately needs to invest in higher education, health care and transportation, yet legislators are cutting more than $2-billion from the state budget because of record declines in tax revenue. The fourth-largest state's antiquated tax structure is ill-equipped for a service-based, global economy, yet there is no urgency in Tallahassee to fix it. A frank public discussion is needed about the widening gap between the state's aspirations and its cash flow. Yet Gov. Charle Crist is in denial.

Crist, in a speech after voters approved the tax-cutting Amendment 1: "We're off to the races in this state."

Crist, describing his spending plan that relies on raiding state accounts and expanding gambling: "Our proposed budget reflects the priorities and needs of our fellow Floridians."

Crist, responding to warnings from university presidents about the impact of budget cuts: "If they're unhappy, maybe they ought to turn the reins over to somebody else."

Reality cannot be wiped away with a smile and a quote. Florida cannot be a first-rate state on a Third World spending plan. A high-cost, low-wage state no longer can afford to rely on growth and sunshine to pay for today and mortgage tomorrow. And a governor and a Legislature focusing solely on making ends meet now lack the vision to plan for the future.

As today's For a Better Florida reports by Steve Bousquet and Tim Nickens illustrate, the state faces immediate challenges in a slumping economy, and the financial outlook for the near future is nearly as grim. Crist's shortsighted strategy relies too heavily on tapping state accounts to keep government running and hoping for better days ahead. His plan is so unrealistic he has effectively dropped the budget crisis into the Legislature's lap to solve as it sees fit.

Unfortunately, lawmakers are just as out of touch with reality and unwilling to listen to university presidents, judges and public hospital administrators. They cling to the foolish notion that Florida can cut its way to prosperity. It's appropriate to cut fat with a scalpel, but they are about to hit bone with their meat ax.

Here is the legacy this Legislature is preparing to leave: Universities that shut their doors to thousands of qualified students. Courthouses that go dark because there is no money to pay employees. Children who go uninsured, pristine land that goes unprotected and road projects that go unbuilt because state revenue does not come close to matching needs. Is this the record legislators want to run on in November?

There are smart ideas floating around Tallahassee about investing in the future. Develop a compact with universities that ties spending levels with performance standards. Increase spending on drug treatment to reduce the need for more prisons. Buy more environmentally sensitive land now while prices are falling. Provide health insurance for more children to reduce charity care in hospital emergency rooms. But investing requires money, and the tax system is broken.

Faith that Florida will be fine after the economy recovers is not based on reality. The state will continue to fall far short of just maintaining existing programs in the next few years. The gap between revenue and recurring costs will grow to $3-billion in 2010-11. Without a fairer, broader-based tax system, there can be little optimism about the future of this state.

There are pragmatic solutions. The Legislature could close sales tax exemptions. It could position the state to collect sales taxes on catalog and Internet sales. It could close loopholes that enable corporations to avoid paying taxes here by accumulating profits elsewhere. Each of those changes has as much to do with fairness as with raising revenue.

All it would take to brighten Florida's future is a grasp of reality and a vision that stretches beyond the next election. But those qualities are in terribly short supply in Tallahassee, where politicians see the sun always shining and good times just around the next budget cut.