As you read this, the Florida Legislature is meeting in Tallahassee, ostensibly to plug a $3 billion gap in the state's ailing budget because of losses in sales tax and other collections in this recession.
The real purpose is to continue the Republican-led dismantling of state and local governments in a quest to fulfill the 1990s mantra of "less government, fewer taxes and more personal responsibility." State lawmakers are set to work on the continued gutting of Florida's public infrastructure — health care and education foremost among them — through Jan. 12.
In true myopic fashion, GOP leaders in the Senate and House agreed before the opening gavel of the special session to take any talk of new or raised taxes off the table. On its surface, this makes some sense. After all, you don't raise taxes in a recession. People are hurting enough already, right?
Not so fast.
First, the main tax that was being discussed is discretionary in nature: the cigarette tax, among the lowest in the nation. Increasing that levy would not only raise needed money but might force a change in the public's destructive use of tobacco, which we all pay for in higher health care costs.
Other tax-"raising" ideas are merely tax equity ideas, including closing loopholes that allow many services in Florida to escape paying sales taxes and joining an interstate pact as a first step toward trying to collect hundreds of millions of dollars in unpaid online-retailing sales taxes. (The St. Petersburg Times editorial page has done a good job in crusading for this change in the past two weeks.) These are basic fairness issues: Some industries with clout end up paying no sales taxes while others providing the same products or types of services do.
So instead of leaving all options on the table, Republicans leaders such as the ethically challenged House Speaker Ray Sansom want, instead, to continue slicing services and raising trust funds to make up the $2.1 billion shortfall.
For K-12 and higher education, already reeling from a devastating round of cuts last year, it likely means another 2 percent cut. A sign of how bad things are could be seen in a news story that recently trumpeted how education officials were simply glad they weren't looking at the 4 percent cut that most other state services face. Even workforce education programs, which should be key to our economic development, would lose $8.4 million in Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed cuts. We've got hundreds of thousands of newly out-of-work residents and less money to get them back into productive, taxpaying jobs.
In health care, we're failing as well. The state Department of Health recently issued a report that warns of a mounting doctor shortage. A national study gave the state a C- for access to emergency care, and we're third in the nation for mass layoffs in the health care industry.
And the Legislature's likely reaction to all this? Continue to choke off these services and programs.
A leading voice for some sanity on the budget is Florida Sen. Dan Gelber, who used to be the top Democrat in the right-wing House of Representatives. Lonely job. Just before the special session started on Monday, Gelber wrote on his blog:
"This is a mistake. You can't dig your way out of a budget hole. We have already cut billions from public education in a state with the nation's worst high school graduation rate; we have cut billions from health care in a state with the second highest percentage of uninsured (including 800,000 children without health care). Many of my colleagues have indicated we will just have to increase efficiencies or 'cut the fat' in government. That sounds good because we should always be cutting fat and increasing efficiencies. But how much is there left to cut, and what does that say about past leadership? Are we to believe that the self-professed anti-government Governor Jeb Bush or the Republican dominated legislatures of the last decade have left that much fat and inefficiencies such that we can get through this crisis by simply cutting services? If so, someone has a lot of explaining to do. And how smart is it to put thousands of people out of work in the middle of a recession when Florida's unemployment rate is already closing in on 8 percent."
We are not going to build a new, better Florida with a more stable and vibrant economy by making people dumber and sicker. Or by slavishly hewing to a political slogan — "no new taxes" — that hasn't served us well for nearly 15 years.