Lousy start to session

A Times Editorial
Published March 9, 2008

If the dismal first week of the legislative session is a preview of what is to come, Floridians should not look to Tallahassee for courage or vision in this time of economic crisis. The Republicans who control the Legislature rammed through more than $500-million in additional spending cuts to limp through this year and are determined to use the same narrow-minded, partisan approach to address a $2.5-billion shortfall in the coming year. It is a path guaranteed to inflict more pain on Floridians at precisely the time they need to rely more on government for help.

A glimpse from the opening scenes of this farce: Gov. Charlie Crist delivered a don't worry, be happy State of the State speech that was out of touch with reality. House Speaker Marco Rubio held a surreal news conference to brag about plans to eliminate a form used in real estate transactions to save $11-million, a tiny fraction of the budget cuts. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and some of his colleagues publicly insulted university chancellor Mark Rosenberg because he has dared to speak the truth about the consequences of starving higher education. Their attempt to blame him for the Legislature's failings was shameful.

The linguistic gymnastics to justify cuts that could be mitigated by raising revenue or using a portion of state reserves are absurd. Rep. Ray Sansom, R-Destin, repeatedly insisted there were no budget cuts at all, just spending reductions. What a relief to community college students who cannot get the classes they need or to judges struggling to keep their courtrooms operating. Sen. Durell Peaden, R-Crestview, tried a different approach. He called the Senate's cold-hearted plan to take $316-million in Medicaid money away from hospitals and nursing homes a rate freeze, not a cut. Either way, services would have to be cut or more costs would have to be shifted to paying patients.

The Florida Constitution requires a balanced state budget. It does not require that to be done by budget cuts alone. Yet any other options already have been taken off the table by House Republicans. They will not consider raising revenue. They will not use even a portion of state reserves. They will not expand use of other one-time money in state accounts, accept Crist's proposal to expand gambling to raise money or consider ways to make the tax system fairer. While some of those individual positions are defensible, the cumulative result is they are backing themselves into a very dark corner and taking every Floridian with them.

To their credit, Democrats will continue to push for a real discussion about raising money to help offset a historic revenue decline of more than $4-billion over two years. The reasonable ideas range from closing some sales tax exemptions to making it easier to collect taxes on Internet sales to making it harder for corporations to avoid paying their fair share of state taxes. Those are fairness issues, and Senate Republicans at least hint at being willing to listen. But House Republicans are not interested in fairness. They are on a path that would inflict as much pain on as many Floridians as possible and starve this state of the revenue it needs not to flourish but to merely aspire to mediocrity.