Even With Big Surplus Lawmakers Have Little Room For Longterm Projects

Sep 17, 2015

The Legislature will has a $635 million surplus, but most of that money is non-recurring.
Credit Nick Evans

Florida House and Senate leaders are bragging about a $635 million surplus in the coming year.  The outlook might not be quite as rosy as it looks.

Last week, state economic forecasters unveiled Florida’s three-year financial outlook.  The headline coming out of that hearing is next year’s surplus.  As state lawmakers get back to the difficult work of spending money, they’ll have over $630 million to play with. 

But Florida’s lead economist Amy Baker warns, “That comes with two important caveats.”

She explains that although lawmakers have a nice surplus now, most of that money won’t be returning in coming years, and if lawmakers were to spend it all now on recurring expenditures they’d be in the red by next year.

“In fact if your desire is not to go negative in any of the three years in the three year plan,” Baker says, “the maximum above and beyond the level that we’ve already anticipated that you can spend this year on recurring programs is $74 million.”

To put that in perspective, the most recent budget was over $78 billion.  With only $74 million for new recurring projects it might be a relatively quiet session. 

“Well now, Mr. Chairman,” Sen. Don Gaetz (R-Niceville) begins with a wry smile, “I know why you felt it was not necessary for your subcommittees to meet this week.”

For his part, Senate Budget chair Tom Lee (R-Brandon) says lawmakers need to begin looking for ways make current programs more efficient.

“We’re not going to be able to continue doing the kinds of things we’re been doing with tax cuts and the cost drivers in government, if we don’t produce productivity gains and greater efficiencies,” Lee says.  “And we’ve done a wonderful job cutting taxes over the 20 years in and out I’ve been in the Legislature, but we’ve head a harder time reforming the infrastructure.”

Despite those projections, House and Senate leadership seem to be gearing up for another round of tax cuts.  Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) has even put a number on it—$250 million.