After years of belt-tightening that saw Florida lawmakers slash funding for state services and repeatedly renege on legislative commitments made in earlier sessions, the state is projecting a surplus of $850 million for 2014-2015 budget. Great news — especially for anyone in elected office dealing with sagging poll numbers and running for another term.
Which bring us to Gov. Rick Scott. Hardly had the surplus estimate been made public before Mr. Scott launched a “listening tour” around the state to figure out how to give away $500 million in the form of tax cuts. Whee! Who doesn’t like tax reductions? But before jumping on that tax-cut bandwagon, consider what Florida stands to gain by using the money wisely.
Any tax reduction proposed by Mr. Scott and Florida’s lawmakers must promote job growth and bolster the state’s economy. A tax cut that doesn’t do either can wind up being costly and counter-productive, like the 2011 reduction of more than $200 million in property taxes collected by water management districts. The resulting cutbacks on water cleanup operations and environmental oversight have proven unwise in a state that depends on a clean environment and outdoor recreational activities.
And before promising to dispense revenue like so much election-year candy, the governor and lawmakers must consider abiding by pledges made by the Legislature in years past.
• The Florida Forever Fund, designed to set aside pristine wilderness areas for future generations of Floridians, has been milked by the governor and the current crop of lawmakers for other purposes. Last year, the state funded just $20 million of the $300 million that should have been directed to Florida Forever. This means the state is losing valuable resource land and water that it should conserve for the benefit of everyone who lives in Florida.
• The Sadowski Fund, the state and local housing trust fund that relies on revenue from documentary stamp taxes, was also raided by legislators who swept the $204 million available for appropriation into Florida’s “rainy day fund,” at the expense of families in need of low-cost housing across the state.
Funding should be restored to both of these trust funds before making tax-cut pledges with money that, at this stage, is no more than a gleam in the eye of vote-hungry officials.
Don’t get us wrong. Florida has a variety of taxes that legislators can examine for potential reductions that lessen the burden on business and may improve the state’s economy — if they’re done right. These include the corporate tax, the communications tax (which affects cell phone and cable TV packages) and the tax on commercial leases.
Also worth considering: the proposal by Sen. Joe Negron to roll back vehicle registration increases that were approved in 2009. It seems only fair that if fees were increased when lawmakers were desperate to plug huge budget holes during the economic recession, they should be lowered somewhat now that the economy is improving.
But Florida is already a low-tax state with a high demand for resources that range across a wide spectrum of services: healthcare, education, disabled children, at-risk families and the state’s colleges and universities — all perennially ill-served by funding cutbacks during the recession.
Gov. Scott and legislators eager to curry favor with voters have an obligation to weigh Florida’s needs and its future before showering voters willy-nilly with money in an election year.