Total Pageviews

Search This Blog

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The wrong choices that Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature made

From Sunshine State

by Nancy Smith

Rick Scott isn't the first governor to make a play for Florida's 124 trust funds. But he joins the state's most egregious abusers of them. It's one of the things this rookie outsider has in common with the 2011 Legislature.

Trust funds are the Rodney Dangerfield of Florida's fiscal structure.

You always know when elected officials are planning a raid. You hear trust funds disparagingly, even sneeringly called names like earmarks, turkeys, pork, even slush funds. That's to cover up the fact that they know full well they should keep their sticky fingers off.

Trust fund proceeds don't come from ad valorem taxes, they come from the likes of doc stamps and license fees and the 12 cents-a-gallon add-on at the gas pump. The Florida Lottery, for instance, that's a trust fund.

In the late 1980s, voters approved the lottery for Florida primarily because those who sponsored the ballot initiative promised the proceeds would go to bolster education, not replace money the state held back.

It didn't happen. Year after year the Legislature was saying, great, let's pay for education first with lottery money, then we'll have plenty of the education money left over for something else. In fact, that broken lottery promise was a bone that stuck in the craw of voters for 10 years -- until 1997, when former Senate President Ken Pruitt, then in the House, and Don Sullivan in the Senate, crafted and sponsored Bright Futures scholarships. It was Bright Futures, a ringing enhancement, a trust fund promise, that now represents one of Florida education's biggest success stories.

Sadly, even Bright Futures has been raided -- and now it has been altered almost beyond recognition. Lawmakers who pulled off the raid would tell you -- and, please, don't believe it for a minute -- that their changes "saved" the program.

All trust funds consist of money set aside to build and maintain and improve or enhance literally hundreds of things that give Florida the quality of life the governor touts when he's out selling the state to far-flung businesses and foreign investors.

Nevertheless, Scott wants to kill all 124 trust funds. He's made no secret of it. Curtains for trust funds was part of the budget he presented in February. He didn't get his way, but he'll be back. What he wants to do is to fold all of the remaining $8.5 billion in trust fund money into general revenue -- the here-today-gone-tomorrow pot.

Taking this long-term investment for a short-term gain is going to do nothing but crush Florida's economic recovery and dim its future.

Trust funds are do-good money. Many citizens have never heard of them but they see and feel their impact every day. These funds attract federal matching dollars. They attract a host of private grants. They are arguably the most effective job creators in the Sunshine State.

Want to create a flood of unfunded mandates for our local governments? Take trust funds out of the mix. City councils and county commissions will be left looking for trust-fund-replacement cash to help build roads, protect the environment, provide green spaces and public parks for Florida's children and families. In today's economy, municipalities are unlikely to find that money. Many worthy projects will be shelved.

During the 2011 legislative session, lawmakers snatched a total of $524 million from 31 different accounts. They said they had to do it. They said they couldn't balance the budget if they didn't hit the trust funds. Included in the sweep was $150 million from the State Transportation Trust Fund. To veto-proof it, they attached it to education -- meaning, if Scott vetoes the raid, the transportation money goes straight to education, not to roads. Thousands of jobs and a ton of vital projects are not going to happen. We can thank the Legislature for that debacle.

Scott has plenty to answer for himself, and here's one of it: He claims he vetoed $305 million in "spending authority" from Florida Forever. It's entirely meaningless. It's creative accounting at best. Fuzzy math. You can't save $305 million that isn't there. And it's not there. Florida Forever has the land to sell, it doesn't have the cash in hand.

What Scott actually vetoed in real money is $310 million -- a figure right in line with past governors, even Charlie Crist. Scott worked hard, spent long hours with the veto pen, but when all was said and done, he didn't break any budget-slimming records. The Legislature already had balanced the budget -- did he really need to go shopping in trust funds?

The scary part is this: the governor, lawmakers -- and there are so many new legislators trying to learn -- allow themselves to be part of the ear-splitting, 24-7 campaign rhetoric. It still goes on, 10 months later. They haven't learned that when the chamber door closes, the rhetoric ends and the governing begins.

Meanwhile, we keep rumbling toward budgeting California-style. That's where we're headed. We've lost all fiscal discipline, we've lost the voters' confidence, we do our budget planning with a trust fund broom. California, here we come.

Can't the Legislature and Gov. Scott preserve Florida's proven investments? The Senate was always at the forefront of protecting trust funds, where are those stalwarts now? Let's see the Legislature and the governor reset their priorities to stop or reduce government programs and agencies that don't provide a long-term benefit to the state. Now, there's a goal.

In a state with double-digit unemployment, it doesn't make sense to gut trust funds without engaging in a dialogue that includes the citizens of Florida.

"Tough choices" this session? The ones I saw mostly were the easy choices, if not the out-and-out wrong ones.

Columnist Nancy Smith can be reached at nsmith@sunshinestatenews, or at (850) 727-0859.

No comments:

Post a Comment