OP-ED: Legislature ends with mixed reviews

May 9, 2008

Miami Herald--May 09, 2008

Whenever the Legislature convenes a new session, there is anticipation about what will be accomplished. Just as predictably when the session ends, there is disappointment about what was left undone. The 2008 Legislature was no different. Lawmakers faced the daunting task of setting state priorities amid a sinking economy, a $5 billion revenue shortfall and a bruising housing market.

Not surprisingly, lawmakers left Tallahassee last week with a decidedly mixed record. They passed some bills — such as a freeze on windstorm-insurance rates, compensation for wrongful convictions and low-cost health insurance for the uninsured — that will give them talking points and political cover in this big election year. To balance the budget, though, they took big chunks out of funding for education ($2.3 billion) and social services ($450 million).

Pain and relief

Altogether, there is enough of both pain and relief in this year’s budget to give every legislator enough to brag about persevering in hard times. After all, lawmakers passed more than 300 bills, a productive session by any measure.

When all is said and done, though, lawmakers missed an opportunity. They failed to use the crisis as a reason to streamline and make government more efficient. They could have, but didn’t, use it as a reason to fix Florida’s inadequate revenue base. To give credit where it is due, they did find creative ways to lessen the pain. For example, they used tobacco-endowment funds to cover gaps from social-service cuts and raised $200 million in fees to offset cuts to the courts and criminal-justice system.

Nevertheless, the convergence of a devil’s brew of economic problems was both a challenge and an opportunity. The crisis created a chance to think big about the basic structure of our government. It was a time to look at how we manage our resources, set priorities and balance or rebalance the state’s mix of revenues and expenditures.

Diversify income base

It was the time to review Florida’s outlandish spending on prisons. Crime rates have been dropping for years, but the new budget allocates $400 million for new prison construction. Why? Because far too many people are locked up for nonviolent drug offenses. A different approach, supported with new laws, could reduce the population of nonviolent offenders and lower prison costs.

The revenue shortfall also put a spotlight on Florida’s reliance on a sales tax to fund essential services. We need a more diversified income base, but lawmakers took a pass on two things that could help: taxing products sold over the Internet; and updating the list of goods and services excluded from the sales tax.

But we are thankful, too, for what lawmakers didn’t do. They failed to pass a bad property-tax bill, avoided a wasteful sales-tax holiday, didn’t approve a weak statewide crane law and rejected calls to introduce a bogus evolution theory in science classes. They also left governance of the state’s higher-education system intact. Not all failure is a bad thing.