Florida tax revenue drop persists

For the fourth time in a year, state economists lower their estimates, this time by $1B.

By Steve Bousquet, Tallahassee Bureau Chief
Published March 12, 2008

TALLAHASSEE - Like lots of Floridians, the state found out Tuesday it won't bring in any extra money next year to help with rising costs.

State economists said Florida will collect $1-billion less in taxes this year than expected and that the state will have about the same amount of money next year.

The bleak fiscal outlook, produced to help the Legislature write the 2008-09 budget, cited familiar culprits.

Construction is slow and housing prices are dropping, prompting less consumer spending and thus less sales tax collections. Also dropping are taxes on investments, property transactions and corporate income.

Legislative economist Amy Baker said the mortgage crisis, inflation and higher energy costs "will prolong the downturn in the state's housing market."

Not until late 2009 will conditions begin to improve, she said.

It marks the fourth consecutive time since last March that state economists have lowered their estimate on tax collections because the economy's downward spiral is worse and longer than anticipated.

"When you get into a recessionary period, a slowdown period, it's hard to see where the turning point happens. You don't see it until it's too late," said Don Langston, a House economist and member of the team of forecasters.

Tuesday's estimate was for just a fraction of the state's roughly $70-billion budget. But the general revenue fund pays for operations, from schools to universities, highway patrol to emergency management, prisons to state courts.

This year, the state will collect $24.5-billion for the general revenue fund, the economists said Tuesday, roughly $1-billion less than predicted previously.

Next year, collections are predicted to reach $24.6-billion; far less than the $29.2-billion economists predicted a year ago. Sales, property transaction and corporate income taxes make up the bulk of taxes that flow into the general revenue fund.

State legislators sliced $1.1-billion in spending last October and today will vote to make another $512-million in cuts to the current year's budget. Education, with $346-million in cuts, will take the biggest hit.

Lawmakers say they won't need to make further reductions to the current year budget because they have enough unspent money set aside. But in the coming weeks, they will have to craft next year's budget with about $2-billion less than economists had estimated in November.

Gov. Charlie Crist used the new revenue slide to again prod lawmakers to spend reserves as an alternative to more budget cuts. But lawmakers strongly resist such short-term fixes, saying they build future holes in the budget and leave less money for major emergencies like hurricanes. Their solution: more cuts.

House Speaker Marco Rubio said it would be "irresponsible and unfair" to raid trust funds and reserves to balance the state's books, because the slump will not end for some time.

"I'm looking right now at something that looks like a three-year downturn," Rubio said. "I'm a termed-out legislator. The easiest thing for me to do is go into trust funds and reserves and make this year the best possible year."

Visiting with constituency groups, Crist downplayed the severity of the cash crunch.

"If our budget goes from $70-billion to $68-billion, that's still a lot of money," Crist told about 60 mortgage brokers visiting the capital. "We're going to be just fine."

Later, speaking to a group of Orlando-area business and civic leaders, Crist said: "There's all this gloom and doom over Tallahassee about these revenue estimates."

Senate President Ken Pruitt said "the drop in revenues is significant, and it puts the state budget in a very serious situation."

He also said the current fiscal challenges should be resolved without the use of "financial shortcuts to avoid the political heat that budget reductions will bring."

Times staff writer Alex Leary contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or 850 224-7263.