The Florida Legislature faces the difficult task of funding the country’s third largest state on a shoestring. Lawmakers are putting their noses to the grindstone.
Budget forecasts suggest there will be about $7 million in new money for lawmakers to work with this year—which in a roughly $80 billion spending plan is almost nothing.
House Budget Chief Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami) says that’s just the beginning.
“This much red is sobering,” he says looking at the three year forecast. “Although we’re flat for the upcoming year, when you look at the multi-year outlook things get pretty bad pretty quickly. Unless we take action we’ll be facing $1.3 billion shortfall in 2018/2019 and a $1.9 billion shortfall in the ensuing years. Members, that is very, very, very concerning.”
To get a handle on the problem, Trujiillo is tasking each of his subcommittee chairs with developing a list of hypothetical cuts. Under the exercise lawmakers fund a number of new issues, but cut more than they add to the bottom line.
“So if we’re adding roughly $300 hundred million, plus an additional $100 million plus an additional $250 million, we’re adding about $600 million,” Trujillo tallies up. “In order for us to reach that outfall, we have to cut roughly $1.2, $1.3, $1.4 billion.”
“That’s going to be scenario A. That’s the easy one.”
Under scenario B the cuts are more than $2.2 billion. Wednesday, Rep. Jason Brodeur (R-Sanford) went over the benchmarks with his committee. The healthcare appropriations panel faces the largest cuts in both exercises.
“One will be a slightly easier target, and for us that is a target reduction of $275.8 million out of our budget,” Brodeur says. “We don’t yet know what reality we’ll be facing which is why we’re doing the two of them. The more difficult target will be to reduce our budget by $573.8 million.”
But with Governor Rick Scott trumpeting Florida’s recovery at every turn some lawmakers like Democratic Leader Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) are scratching their heads.
“What I’m seeing in my district is more housing starts that I’ve ever seen, I see Tampa with tourism at an all-time high, and I worry—I’m wondering—I feel like what you’re saying to me and to us is that we’re looking at conceivably an economic downturn,” Cruz says.
In response, Trujillo echoes the House leadership line: Florida doesn’t have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. But they’re different sides of the same coin, and Rep. David Richardson (R-Miami Beach) wonders if the Legislature has focused too heavily in recent years on a particular kind of spending.
“I’ve been here four years now,” Richardson says, “and we’ve made significant tax cuts over the last four years. And I wonder how much of those tax cuts are causing us to be in the position we are now.”
Whether Trujillo’s exercise yields instructive results will come next month when the appropriations committee reconvenes.
But in terms of context, Sen. Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) says the current budget picture is really nothing new.
“This is my fifteenth session,” Latvala says. “There’s never been a year when we had too much money—that we didn’t have to make some tough decisions, and this year will be just the same.”