With No Money and Political Power Up For Grabs, An Interesting Legislative Session
These are double-dip recessionary times. A grudging callousness is upon the world. And that world includes Tallahassee, according to political observers.
For the second year in a row, Florida Governor Rick Scott, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, face a multi-billion dollar gap as legislators sit down to write a state budget.
That, and the political free-for-all unleashed by constitutionally mandated redistricting this year is all the back story the public needs to know to understand nearly every piece of legislation that politicians, lobbyists and public interest groups will fight over as the 2012 legislative session begins next month.
"Everything is related to the budget and reapportionment — everything," says former Democratic state legislator and Orlando businessman Dick Batchelor.
If the governor and legislative leaders "could address those two issues early on and straight up as possible, I think that would be a real success," he says. If not, every other piece of legislation will become controversial and related to either the budget or reapportionment in some way.
Yawning Budget Gap With Few Easy Answers
In the last legislative session a new governor and the legislature closed a $3 billion budget gap with brutal social welfare cuts that Batchelor says frayed Florida's social safety net. Next year the state expects a shortfall of about $2 billion.
State funding for children, students, Medicaid recipients, and other Florida residents are at risk, Batchelor says,
"I am a child advocate primarily," he says, "and adding the budget cuts last year to the budget cuts this year will be beyond the fat, beyond the meat, and beyond the bone. You are cutting into the marrow."
Batchelor cites per capita public school K-12 funding , which is now the lowest in the nation; higher education funding cuts that cause state universities to impose state-sanctioned double-digit tuition increases year-after-year; and underfunded diversionary programs that could help juvenile offenders avoid a lifetime of crime.
Meanwhile, a state program walking around with a big "kick me" sign taped to its back is the Florida Medicaid program. At about $20 billion, it is the state's largest expenditure — and it's growing.
"As long as you don't have health care cost controls and the laws don't have any way to control the runaway cost of pharmaceuticals for Medicaid, costs are going to keep going up," says Batchelor. "And then we've got to decide whether or not to fund Medicaid, reduce the benefits, or reduce the service covered. That's where the legislature is headed."
These and many other potential cuts are not without political cost, says Jim Philips, host of the Philips Phile, sometimes-irreverent talk radio program that airs on WTKS-FM in Orlando.
"People are already mad about many of the cuts," he says. "You just can't do it anymore.
Occupy movements on Wall Street and Orlando, I think, tap into an anger that is really held by the middle class and the working poor. I tend to believe there is life in this. What direction it takes, I have no idea."
Read My Lips, No New Taxes
Budget cutting alternatives are also grim.
Efforts to outsource the state prison system to save money are bogged down in the courts. Many would like to outsource the state-backed homeowners insurance to private insurers. That could lower financial risk to the state, but does little to close the existing budget gap.
Downsizing government is also an option, says former Republican Congressman Lou Frey Jr. There are many who believe that the government needs to tighten its belt like the rest of the state. They believe government hasn’t cut enough.
"Can you use a job freeze, not cut anybody's job?" asks Frey. "Can we force people to run it [state government] more efficiently? The answer in both cases is probably yes."
Additionally, the legislature could look for new sources of state revenue to fill the gap even as they consider longer-term measures to grow the state economy and create jobs.
But what does raising revenue mean? It doesn't mean raising taxes, says Frey.
"The closer it is to an election, and especially a presidential election, the tougher it is to get any legislation that makes sense," he says. "And obviously raising taxes becomes really a no-no."
The legislature could defer planned tax cuts in state corporate and intangible tax rates. But this, too, seems a hard sell to a Republican governor and Republican majorities in both state houses.
With few good choices, the gaming industry is fighting for the right to open destination casinos in the state. If allowed, it would create new tax revenue from industries willing to pay.
"I think there will be a gigantic push for this," says Philips. "I wouldn't be surprised, depending on how the pari-mutuel industry sees it, for the legislature to allow home rule — your county, your city, you want to have a casino, that's up to you."
Groups are already lined up on each side of the issue. For example, the South Florida construction industry may see things differently than Central Florida's family-friendly tourism industry.
"The concern is that we are a tourist state, a family tourist state," says Frey. "Do you want to become known as the Las Vegas of the South?"
Get Ready to Rumble
The budget battles alone could tie up an entire legislative session. But this year the legislature must also reapportion Congressional and state legislative voting districts based upon the results of the 2010 federal census.
Florida came out of the census sweepstakes a winner, gaining new voting districts due to a net increase in Florida population during the first decade of the new millennium.
So, let the games begin.
"People who say it [redistricting] is going to be non-political; there's no such thing as a non-political redistricting," says Frey. "Somebody is being helped and somebody is being hurt."
But before the party in power (the Republicans this time around) could divide the spoils, Florida voters tried to change the rules.
Sixty-three percent of them passed two, so-called Fair Districts amendments to the state constitution. They require compactness, continuity and a respect for municipal boundaries in reapportioning voting districts. Moreover, you can't draw a district to favor one political party, or one ethnic group.
In response, the Republican-led legislature has filed suit to challenge the validity of the amendments, setting aside $30 million in taxpayer money to pay the legal costs.
"It really comes down to who do you want to decide on the district," says Frey. "Do you want the legislature to do it, or do you want the courts to do it?
I’d rather see the legislature be involved in the process, with the understanding that if they don't do a good job, the courts get another shot at it."
But Batchelor disagrees. The Republicans have "already injected the courts into this matter," he says. "I think in the end, whatever the legislature does will have to be approved by the Department of Justice and will also end up in the state and federal courts."