EDITORIAL: Floridians look for help; leaders offer platitudes

Mar 6, 2008

Daytona Beach News-Journal--Mar. 5, 2008

Floridians face a rough year, one that’s bound to get rougher after the Legislature hacks the current state government budget by $500 million before cutting an additional $2 billion-plus from the spending plan for the coming year. Expect class sizes to increase, universities to shrink enrollment (and possibly raise tuition), health care to become scarcer and aid to the disabled and mentally ill to shrink drastically.

There isn’t enough money to meet Florida’s needs in the coming year. That harsh reality will dominate the Legislature’s annual session, which started Tuesday.

So when Gov. Charlie Crist decided to delay his annual State of the State address until 6 p.m. so working Floridians could tune in, many expected him to offer some acknowledgement of that pain. Floridians were owed concrete plans for bolstering the families reeling from economic blows, and a level-headed acknowledgement that foolhardy policies of the past have helped create the current budget mess.

Instead, they got platitudes and distractions. Crist preened over past accomplishments — including some that are actually shaping up to be significant mistakes, like the property-tax amendment passed in January that could cripple local governments. Bragging about Florida’s educational attainment was a particularly painful misstep, given that district school officials across the state are facing tough decisions to close schools and cut services.

Throughout his speech, Crist offered up several ideas that hold promise. But the governor missed the chance to deal squarely with the biggest problems facing state government, and offer solutions that would actually help ameliorate Florida’s pending budget crisis.

It’s telling that Crist wants to spend $200 million to develop solar, wind and renewable energy — but less than $64 million on expanding health-care access. The first is certainly a laudable goal, and worthy of consideration. The second is a moral imperative in a state where 3.8 million people lack health insurance. And Crist’s $64 million won’t cut it, especially if that funding is coupled with attacks on vital consumer-protection measures. The governor wants to erode requirements for insurance companies to cover routine medical problems and open the door to for-profit companies that would siphon paying customers away from public hospitals. How would this help people who don’t have insurance?

In their opening-day speeches, House Speaker Marco Rubio and Senate President Ken Pruitt focused more keenly on budget realities — realizing that this session will bring tough and probably painful decisions. But neither chamber leader offered realistic plans to deal with the crisis. Instead, they brought up more distractions — Rubio’s foolhardy quest to further erode local property-tax revenues, Pruitt’s determination to reshuffle the structure of Florida’s educational system.

Floridians deserve better. They deserve leaders with the humility to reverse past mistakes — like the $1-billion-plus siphoned from each year’s budget by a tax break for wealthy investors — and the compassion to bolster those who are suffering most in a sagging economy. Lawmakers and the governor have 59 more days to prove that fairness and common sense matter more than the platitudes and self-congratulation offered Tuesday. Until they seize that opportunity, the state of this state can only be described as troubled.