April 15, 2024

Editor's Page

Job One

Vickie Chachere | 4/1/2023

The state constitution requires only one thing of the Florida Legislature, that it pass a balanced budget each year. If they wanted to, lawmakers could come to Tallahassee, pass a budget and go home, satisfied they’d done their duty.

This year, the Florida Legislature will have upwards of $115 billion to spend — more money than ever before. The current budget stands at $110.9 billion, an increase of $19 billion (about 20%) in just two years, and the Long-Range Financial Outlook adopted by the Joint Legislative Budget Commission expects the state to have a surplus for at least the next two years. That’s good news for this growing state, which has an opportunity to prepare itself for the future as well as address persistent issues.

The importance of the Legislature’s singular role in turning Florida’s current success into long-term security was driven home recently during a tabletop exercise staged by Florida TaxWatch as part of its public education campaign on the state budget. I’ve appreciated Florida Tax- Watch’s work — and President and CEO Dominic Calabro and his team’s encyclopedic knowledge of all things Florida finance — in dissecting state spending since I was a young Tampa Tribune reporter in Tallahassee during Lawton Chiles’ administration. It seems quaint now, but in those years the first task for a new capitol reporter was to trudge up the hill from the press center to meet appropriations committees staff members for a primer on the budget. It was a practical approach in our responsibility to our readers: You can’t understand how government works unless you understand how it spends.

Each year, as the deadline neared for the governor to sign the budget, the press corps would anticipate the annual TaxWatch budget “turkeys” list, which still provides excellent insight into how the system can be manipulated.

TaxWatch Executive Vice President Tony Carvajal led our group in the exercise, handing us a pretend budget with an imaginary $2-billion shortfall. We were asked to adopt the personae of a legislator: Had we pledged to reduce taxes or increase spending to win votes? Were our districts liberal or conservative, urban or rural, rich or poor?

As the clock ticked down, our commonsense bunch started with identifying spending priorities. We decided education was at the top of our list — with transportation, public safety, affordable housing and the environment all close seconds.

We had a menu of measures that would either eliminate the deficit or raise revenues, evaluating the impact of each decision on the promises made to our constituents. We could increase the sales tax, but it’s a regressive tax and if raised too high, it stifles economic activity, so that was a nonstarter. We could increase user and license fees, putting the weight of balancing the budget on the likes of beauticians and boaters, but what would that do to small business and an important industry? We could make cuts to the State University System to direct money to K-12 students, but didn’t we say education was our priority?

As we grappled with our choices, the brilliance of the TaxWatch game was revealed. Every minute, Carvajal threw us a curve ball: Surprise, revenues are slightly higher than expected! Oops, a hurricane has hit; emergency resources are needed! The room kept growing louder — Carvajal was turning up the mic, amplifying the ambient noise to distracting levels. My sweet-tempered teammates grew anxious as we tried to make tough decisions.

When our time was up, we were glad to have completed a technically balanced budget that preserved education spending but forced us to accept less than ideal options to get there. Meanwhile, TaxWatch accomplished something I never thought possible: I felt a little sorry for legislators who have to do this in real life.

Amid the noisy politics of the times, the choices made this session could set the state up for success for generations to come if made above the fray. The discord doesn’t only sidetrack legislators from their most important task, but distracts citizens from understanding whether their government is working or not.

There’s a quiet thoughtfulness in many corners of Florida when it comes to working on seemingly intractable problems. For example, in this issue, we profile Florida Blue’s work in partnership with other organizations in the poorest ZIP codes to improve health by addressing poverty, a commitment the company is willing to make even if it will take decades to show returns.

Despite all that’s going great for Florida, there’s cause for concern in declining kindergarten readiness and third-grade reading scores. But here we are arguing over what books a third-grader might read rather than working together to ensure those children can read at all.

The problem with the pandemonium in this time of ample resources is that we lose an opportunity for thoughtful conversations about Florida’s future; deeper structural issues are obscured; and even good decisions go unnoticed. I don’t see how anyone wins in that game.

Find me on Twitter, @VickieCFLTrend, and LinkedIn.

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