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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
Commentary

A primer on Florida’s budget


Published:

Most Americans are disgusted with their elected officials’ inability to conduct their basic governing responsibilities. The lack of tolerance, respect and cooperation in Congress has led to a partial shutdown of government and has put us on track for a potential and devastating default on our debt.

With all the talk at the national level over Congress’ inability to complete the budget process, and to temporarily fund the government through a straightforward continuing resolution, some states are starting to crow about their successes in reaching consensus on their budgets.

The fact that most states are required to pass a balanced budget, coupled with governors’ line-item veto powers, certainly aids the overall process and fosters a spirit of cooperation. And when one party controls both houses of the legislature and the executive branch, it is reasonable to expect budget negotiations to go smoother than when there is divided government.

Florida, like most states, is required to pass an annual balanced budget. That means we don’t spend more than we take in. Although the governor puts forward a proposed budget prior to the legislative session, it is largely a reflection of his spending priorities and in no way is binding.

The responsibility to craft a spending plan lies solely with the Legislature. In fact, during the 60-day legislative session, the only required order of business is to pass the budget, known as the appropriations bill. For the most part, the process is pretty transparent, and most legislators participate in the budgetary process prior to a floor vote on its passage.

During the period from 1998 to 2013, both chambers have been under Republican control, with a Republican governor. But even with one-party domination, hostile impasses and the inability to pass a budget on time have occurred. Special sessions were called to remedy these failures and to adjust budgets when the revenue projections caused an imbalance.

During the national budget conversation, I’ve heard some misperceptions about Florida and its budget.

It is the governor’s budget: Seldom, if ever, does the Legislature relinquish its authority and pass a budget crafted by the governor. The House and Senate do work with the governor to include some of his priorities — primarily to avoid his veto pen on their priorities.

We only took stimulus dollars under President Barack Obama: Florida took $12 billion in stimulus dollars from 2006 to 2008 under President George W. Bush and $11 billion from 2009 to 2012 under President Obama.

Revenues collected in the state through taxes and fees solely or at least primarily fund Florida’s budget: Federal funding makes up a large portion of Florida’s budget. General revenue, state-generated discretionary revenue, makes up only 36 percent of our most recent budget. Dollars that flow through trust funds make up the other 64 percent, and federal funds comprise a considerable portion of these trust funds. Health care and transportation are two major areas where federal funds are used.

Trust fund dollars are sacrosanct and only used as intended: State funds that flow through trust funds are often the target of raids or sweeps — meaning those dollars are diverted from their intended use. This happens most frequently with money taken from environmental, affordable housing or transportation projects.

We spend too much on the environment: In 1998 we spent $2.5 billion on natural resources (5.5 percent of budget) compared to $3 billion now (4 percent).

Education funding has continually increased: In 1998, education funding was $13.5 billion and in 2013 it is $22.1 billion, which is less than the $23 billion funding of 2006, the $24.3 billion in 2007 and the $22.5 billion in 2010. When looking only at K-12 funding, spending in 2006, 2007, 2009 and 2010 exceeded the current level of $13 billion even though there might have been fewer students.

We have had fiscally conservative budgets that reflect austerity: We have had several years where we made some drastic and even painful cuts, but the reality is that the state budget has grown from $45.2 billion in 1998 to $74.5 billion in 2013. Only in three of these years did the budget actually decrease from the previous year: in 2001, 2008, and 2011.

We have too many government employees: Although the funding has increased from $45.2 billion to $74.5 billion, the number of state employees has decreased from 127,331 to 114,481, representing one of the nation’s lowest per capita ratios. The population of Florida increased from 15 million to 19 million during the same period.

State government has little or no role in health care: In 1998, Florida spent $12.4 billion a year (27 percent of its budget) on health and human services using mostly federal dollars. In 2013, that number is $31.1 billion, representing the largest slice of the budget pie (42 percent).

So given the importance of federal funds in Florida’s budget, especially in health care and transportation, what happens in Washington just may have significant ripple effects here.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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