When legislators convene in Tallahassee on Tuesday, they’ll face the unusual challenge of dealing with a projected surplus in revenue, according to Gov. Rick Scott, instead of another one of the annual deficits that have wreaked havoc on education, environmental protection and a broad array of services in Florida.
That’s good news for the state’s residents. The bad news is that some legislative leaders aren’t buying the governor’s rosy projections, at least not yet.
“Right now, our budget shows that we don’t have $1.2 billion in surplus,” House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said after reviewing the governor’s plan to boost education spending by that amount.
But assuming the governor’s budget estimates are correct — he wants the Legislature to pass a $74.2 billion budget, an increase of $4 billion in state and federal funds — he is certainly on the right track in making education a priority and offering teachers $2,500 each in long overdue raises before launching a long overdue merit pay system.
No one believes the tight-fisted Mr. Scott, who campaigned against “bloated government,” has undergone a miraculous ideological conversion. The governor’s need to improve his dismal approval ratings dictated the change in course. But why look a gift horse in the mouth? If an upcoming election is what it takes for Mr. Scott to realize that government can improve people’s lives and that public employees are not the enemy, why complain?
Other issues that should be priorities for this session include everything from the environment to ensuring the protection of fundamental democratic rights:
• Voting. Florida was once again the target of ridicule for the way it handled the last election, thanks to a foolhardy decision by Republican leaders to reduce the number of early voting days. The Legislature should restore the 14-day early voting period, including the last Sunday before the election.
• Medicaid: Bringing 1 million more Floridians who don’t have healthcare protection under Medicaid’s umbrella at virtually no cost to the state — the federal government will pay for the first three years — is a no-brainer. Whether the state would then be obligated to pay some of the cost after the three-year period is a legitimate concern, but the Legislature can’t simply refuse this offer without devising a viable alternative.
• Environment: Gov. Scott wants to steer more money into programs than in his two previous budgets by earmarking $75 million for the Florida Forever land-buying program and another $60 million for the state’s share of Everglades restoration. Wise calls.
• Property insurance: The Miami-Dade delegation has made it a priority to keep a lid on the rates of the state’s public insurance company, Citizens. There’s a good reason for that. Homeowners in this part of the state are being strangled by high rates. But Senate President Don Gaetz delivered another message to The Herald Editorial Board last week: “It’s going to get more expensive rather than less expensive.” South Florida’s legislators must hang tough on this one.
And there’s more, including a need for the Legislature to stop raiding the Sadowski fund, a pot of money that should be reserved for its designated purpose — desperately needed low-cost housing. Plus, ethics reform, which both Sen. Gaetz and Rep. Weatherford recognize as a priority.
But above all, lawmakers have to realize that after four years of cut, cut, cut, it’s time to sing another song. Invest, invest, invest.