Tag Archives: Florida Legislature

What Will Survive?

With the state legislature through the second day of a special session, the budget axes are out a bit like a da Vinci scythe chariot. Scythed_chariot_by_da_Vinci

I only pulled that analogy because I was watching “Doing da Vinci” on The Discovery Channel.  Technically, I was watching on the DVR, but I digress. (picture is public domain, according to Wikipedia, where I found it).  It seems as if the legislature is slicing through the budget like this war machine was designed to slice through opposing troops.

Florida Capital News is reporting that funding for the arts has decreased dramatically since the days when tax revenues were pouring in from all the construction going on following seasons with multiple hurricanes.

When lawmakers vote on the state budget next (this) week, a cultural grant program that was nearly $34 million three years ago, and just $6.9 million this year, will shrink to $1 million.Quantcast

A historical grant program that has been whittled from $16.2 million to just $700,000 will shrivel to $200,000.

Florida is now 47th in state spending on arts and culture, a ranking unlikely to improve.

Arts funding affects everything from museum grants and historic preservation documentaries to community theaters and public broadcasting.  But with a 6 million + budget hole to be filled, it’s not surprising that lawmakers would look to what most people feel is outside the core functions of Government for places to cut spending.  And yet with so much uncertainty in the economy, every organization which depends on state funding for major chunks of its operating budget has to be eyeing this special session with some real concern.  For that segment of the economy, it’s very likely that the bottom is yet to come.

Also watching with some trepidation are state workers who are facing the prospect of a salary reduction at the end of the day.

State employees earning more than $45,000 a year will have their pay cut 2 percent under a compromise worked out Sunday by House and Senate budget negotiators.

“This will go over like a lead balloon with most of our people,” said David Murrell, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association. “After two years of no pay raises, now they get a pay cut.”

Later in the article, Florida Capital News reports legislators have agreed to a quarter-mil tax increase for schools, and there are other exemptions for many specific groups.  State employees are understandably upset over pay reductions … but they have been common in many private companies trying to avoid wholesale layoffs.  Governor Crist said recently that there was no way to justify holding state employees harmless as so many others were losing their jobs.  I do hope that what’s good for the goose is good for the Governor.

There is a lot on the table during these budget negotiations.  And no matter what happens in the next few days, it’s likely that the numbers will be revised again in subsequent budget reviews … as they have been the past couple of years.  Tax receipts are not expected to rise in the near term, and while real estate is starting so show some signs of life, it’s not out of the ICU just yet.

I wish the legislators well.  It can’t be an easy task.  Every program has its constituency which wonders why theirs is the funding that is cut.  There are going to be a lot of people who walk away disappointed from this budget negotiation.  Maybe a large portion of disappointed people is one way to show they’re doing their job.

But it can’t be a lot of fun.

Sig

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Filed under Florida Legislature, State Budget, Taxes, Thoughts

Gone Fishin’

I guess you could call it a relax tax.

I follow Paul Flemming on Twitter as a good source for quick information about the State Legislature.  Flemming’s bio indicates he’s the State Editor for Ganette’s Florida Newspapers.  Today, he linked to an item on tallahassee.com concerning fishing licenses:

The federal government is set to institute a saltwater fishing fee for those states that don’t have their own. Florida, for 20 years, has not required a license to fish from the shore or piers. In the bill passed today, Floridians will have to buy a $15.50 license to fish from the saltwater shoreline.

Now, one way or the other, beach casters (not broadcasters at the beach) are going to have to buy some kind of Patiencelicense to continue to enjoy their hobby, and  I suppose a state license is less unpalatable than a federal tag.  The license is expected to bring a billion dollars to the state after it goes into effect in January.

Those of us who enjoy fishing are accustomed to paying for a license.  I buy one every year for the privilege of fishing from my boat or someone else’s on the ocean, the ICW, or the St. Johns River.  I’m hoping, if this is inevitable, that the shore license will be folded into the combination salt and fresh water license with only a small increase in the fee, rather than the full $15.50.

But what is troublesome is that, again, the legislature has singled out particular segment of the population as a revenue source.  I recall 15 or so years ago when the Federal government levied a boat tax based on the length of your vessel because it was assumed that anyone who owned a boat was “rich” and could afford the federal registration.  They weren’t spending time at MY marina.  I can see registering a boat like you do a car at the state level, but the federal stamp was simply a revenue stream.  We were told it was dedicated for waterways and such, but we all know how sacrosanct those things are.  Eventually, through organizations like Boat U.S., the boating community managed to get the tax repealed, and our particular hobby cost us just a little bit less.

Shore and pier fishermen, though, may not have such a lobby.  No matter the day, and pretty much no matter the weather, when I go to the beach I see someone standing in the surf with a fishing pole, a bucket of bait, and a cooler.   These may not be the people like me who are fortunate enough to have access to a boat.  They’ve made sometimes a very modest investment in a rod and reel, and just want to pass the time at the beach.  Sometimes they’ll take what they catch home for dinner, sometimes not.

Think, to, about how in these economic times someone might want to find an inexpensive way to spend time with their kids.  I know lots of dads who have spent a lot of time fishing with their kids, and the kids are usually better for it.  But then, on top of a second and maybe third set of tackle, there’s an additional fee just for the privilege of walking down to the beach to fish.  How many will it deter?  There’s no way to know.  Maybe only a few, but are those the few who need to spend the most time with their kids?

I suppose my point is that the people fishing at the beach use no more resources than someone just relaxing on the beach, or surfing.  I don’t want a surfing license, either, even though I don’t surf, and don’t think anyone would ever suggest a ‘tanning tax’, though melanoma is a serious health risk.  You can just hear the jokes about a ‘license to fry’.  But fishermen and hunters are simply conditioned to have a license to enjoy their particular hobby, so I guess it seemed like an easy thing for the federal government to just impose it’s will on shore fishermen, and the state legislature decided if the money was going to be spent anyway, they should get it rather than the feds.  I guess that’s good logic, and a little bit easier to swallow.

Still, the legislature can’t bring its self to lift sales tax exemptions for luxury sky boxes and ostrich feed.

And  (maybe as a bit of an aside) it’s interesting to me that they’ll require a license to fish, from a boat and now from the shore, but seem to have very little interest requiring one for the “Captains” who run their boats sometimes like Keystone Kops out to where the fish are biting.  And who’s only qualification to operate a boat is enough money to buy it and fill it up with gas.

Sig

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Filed under Beach Living, Fishing, Florida Legislature, Thoughts

Randomness

Michigan State seems to be way overmatched by North Carolina in the National Championship Game.  14 minutes and change to go and UNC leads 61-43.  MSU might as well be playing at home, as the game is in Detroit … but Carolina just seems to be too much for the Spartans to handle.  Still a lot of time to go, but it’s a big, long hill to climb.

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Over in Tallahassee … the legislature is past the halfway point, and a body controlled by conservative Republicans, many of whom have taken a “no new taxes” pledge, are facing a deficit of $6.1 billion.  So, to provide political cover, they’ll turn to “user fees”.  From “Florida Capital News“:

If approved, they would hit everyone who drives a car, files a lawsuit, goes fishing or takes out the garbage. College tuition could zoom 15 percent.

The legislature has also “zeroed out” “Florida Forever” … the state’s signature preservation and conservation program.  It’s $300 million budget gone.  Still to come is a potential complete re-write of the business tax code.  It would be difficult to imagine a Republican legislature increasing taxes on businesses during a recession, but I suppose not impossible.  About 1200 state jobs are likely to be cut, 800 currently vacant but that still leaves a lot of state employees in a bind, and the rest likely facing salary cuts.  The session ends in 26 days.

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The committee studying the City Budget begins crafting it’s recommendations tomorrow.  I joined this study late, but I’ve learned an incredible amount about how the city crafts it’s budget.  There are so many challenges in our consolidated government, and Jacksonville has been, by almost any measure, fairly fiscally responsible, but still finds it’s self with some serious challenges.  I think when the report is released that people will be surprised at how involved the process is, and yet how basic some of the issues are.  I know I have been.

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I’ll likely spend some time Thursday at City Hall at the committee meeting discussing the city’s landfill dilemma.  I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few days talking to people about the issue, from longtime political observers to current city councilmen and one who voted on the original contract.   There will be public comment on Thursday, along with another iteration of the Mayor’s presentation.  No matter what, it’s going to be close.

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Wreck 295 cropDriving to improv rehearsal tonight, traffic was at a crawl on I-295 from I-95 to Old St. Augustine Road.   Why?  Someone had managed to flip an SUV in the eastbound lanes.  That’ll make for a really bad evening.  The only camera I had was the iPhone, and since we were staring to get moving again, it was difficult to get any composition on the shot.  I had to make sure I didn’t have a wreck myself while trying to get a shot of this carnage.  I hope everybody was OK.

And speaking of improv … yes we rehearse and I’m getting a little disappointed with people making the “you rehearse improv?” joke.  We rehearse to build trust among the players, to learn the structure of the games, to develop characters, to learn new games, and to laugh and have fun.  All to make sure the audience has the best possible experience.  And if you don’t believe it, just give it a shot sometime with no rehearsal.  Stand up in front of 50 to 100 people with someone you’ve never been on stage with before.  Get a relationship and location suggestion.  Build a scene.  Make it funny.

Go!

Nah, I wouldn’t want to do that either.

And now, with 10 minutes until midnight, and North Carolina running out the clock on their 5th national championship (tying Indiana), it’s time to get this up to the server and call it a night.

Sig

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Filed under Florida Budget, Florida Legislature, Improv, Improv Comedy, Local Government, Local Issues, Thoughts

Tallahassee Tribulations

florida As Florida’s legislative session turns the corner to Sine Die, I imagine both chambers are looking at the gaping $6.1 billion budget hole, and wondering how in the world they arrive at a balanced budget.

Here’s a selection of what came out of Tallahassee today.

The Tallahassee Democrat is reporting that the Senate Finance and Tax Committee has all but given up on closing some sales tax loopholes on Super Bowl Tickets, ostrich feed, and probably bottled water, among other things, in favor of an $800 million tobacco surcharge (on top of the new federal taxes what went into effect Wednesday) and a restructuring of the corporate tax structure that dates back to the 1970’s.  I haven’t seen the details on the corporate tax yet,so I can’t comment, but I’m sure there are lobbyists for the business community pouring over it at the moment, so we’ll see.  Florida has traditionally (at least recently) been kind to business, and a Republican legislature is unlikely to impose sweeping new taxes or tax increases on business in the depth of a recession.  Or so it would seem.

Also in the Tallahassee Democrat today is the report of a proposal in the House Natural Resources Appropriations Committee for a $1.25-per-ton “Landfill Disposal Charge” to be assessed against landfill owners … which one legislator likened to taxing the legislature for coming up with a budget.  The logic being municipal governments are required by their charters to dispose of trash, and landfilling is still far and away the most economical way to do that.  Basically it’s charging a fee (or a tax, it becomes semantics at some point) to local governments for something they’re required to do.   That money has to come from somewhere, and local governments can’t print it.

Of course, both of these proposals are just coming out of committee, and there is plenty of vigorous debate to be had in the full house and senate, and for companion bills, and if it gets that far, from any reconciliation that would have to be done in conference.

Perhaps a better idea, or at least one more appealing to those of us who have been downsized, or had pay reduced, or had involuntary unpaid furloughs, is a proposal in the Senate Ways and Means Committee to cut the salaries of the highest-paid state employees:

Senate Ways and Means Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, said his committee will produce a bill that would impose a 1 percent pay cut for everyone making more than $100,000. Alexander said it wouldn’t apply if the reduction would take an employee’s salary below $100,000 — for instance, if an employee made $100,700 a year, the cut would only be $700.

Still, symbolically that’s something.  There would be a larger 6 percent reduction in pay for the legislators themselves.  A plan floating around the house but “not settled policy” would cut state employees as much as 5 percent.  Today, The Florida Capital News reports that as many as 2000 state jobs could be cut under a new Senate plan.  1,200 of them are currently vacant, but that’s 800 people out of work.

It’s a major problem, and one that doesn’t seem to have any end in sight.  David Letterman is fond of saying he “wouldn’t give (fill in the blank’s) problems TO A MONKEY ON A ROCK!!!”  I’m not sure what that means, but it seems to fit with what’s going on in Tallahassee.

State Senator Jim King, who represents the district in which I live, said in response to an inquiry about his interest in the job of University Chancellor that he’d have no problems leaving the Senate with a year left in his term because (and I’m paraphrasing) it’s as bad in Tallahassee as he’s ever seen it.

And he’s been there a long time.

So, with 30 days left in the legislative session, our elected state officials seem to at least be working on the things that matter.  I don’t know if it’s because I haven’t had the steady diet of legislative news this session, or if there’s just been less … but I don’t notice the more frivolous bills being debated that we’ve seen in previous years.  A $6.1 billion budget gap seems to have gotten their attention.  I just hope when the dust settles and the smoke clears that something substantive and real has been done … even if I don’t necessarily agree.

Sig

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Filed under Florida Budget, Florida Legislature, Florida Taxes, Thoughts

A New Florida Economy?

When I moved to Florida just 9 years ago this month, the conventional wisdom was that some 800-1000 people were coming to the Sunshine State every day.

Think about that for a moment. That’s 292,000 to 365,000 new Floridians a year. No one really ever talked about how many might be leaving … but suffice it to say that it was pretty much a net gain.  Housing was cheap, there were jobs, many in construction and services, houses were being built as fast as developers could slap them together (in some cases), retail strip malls and covered malls and later “Town Centers” sprang up to separate people from their money … and generate property taxes and collect sales taxes for state and local governments.  All those stores needed employees … times were darn good.

Then, too, the lure of great beaches and exciting nightlife and sprawling theme parks drew millions and millions of tourists … all spending money … generating tax revenue on sales taxes and bed taxes and keeping retail clerks and theme park cast members employed.  What’s not to like.

Today, in the Tallahassee Democrat, is a sobering assessment from the President of the State Chamber of Commerce.

“When you’re president of the Chamber of Commerce, people ask you, ‘When is the economy coming back?’ ” said Mark Wilson, who has that job in Florida. “The truth is, never. The economy is never going back to what it was.”

So then what will it be, and can it be better?

Obviously, I don’t know the answer to that question.  Maybe it’ll be better.  But it’s looking more and more like my immediate possibilities for employment lie with me.

The legislature is talking about new taxes, and some kind of tax restructuring is almost a certainty.  I know the federal stimulus money is very tempting, but spending one time money for operating perhaps not the best idea.  I know the idea of a stimulus is to stimulate … and that it might be the impetus to begin getting things going again.  But what is certain is the stimulus is not going to be a bottomless cup of coffee.  It can’t be.  I don’t know that they can print enough money.

I was talking to my financial advisor today, who was talking about the state of the national economy.  He said that historically, payroll tax cuts always work, and business income tax cuts always work to improve the stock market and the job situation … but that the political climate right now doesn’t favor either of those approaches.   But his assertion is that part of the reason the marked continues to slide is that there is not yet any clear direction from Washington.  It’s possible the U.S. Economy will never going back to what it was.  Again, I hope it’s not what it was, I hope it’s better.

There are hundreds of stories of people in difficult circumstances.  One thing that is particularly disconcerting is that you apparently have to be in default on your mortgage two months before you can qualify for any assistance in restructuring your loan to reduce your payments.  That makes sense from the bank’s point of view.  If someone is paying the mortgage, get the money while you can.  Restructuring comes under the “it’s better to get something than nothing” department.  Still it seems like there should be SOMETHING for the people who worked hard, played by the rules, and might need some help to avoid that two month arrears.  But that’s not the way the game is played.

I’ve meandered a bit.  If Florida is to have a new economy, on what will it be based?  The experts right now are saying space, aviation, biotech, and other high-tech opportunities.  That means education, which is among the least well funded in the nation.

This legislature faces some serious challenges.  The question is whether there is the political will to do something that will turn things around.

Sig

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Filed under Economy, Florida Legislature, Politics, Thoughts

Another Week at an End

The weather is finally turning warmer approaching the ides of  February.  It’s about normal this time of the year.  What passes for winter has mostly left us.  There is still the threat of a hard freeze, but only for a few more days, I think.

With the spring, of course, comes the annual madness … the 60 day Florida legislative session will begin in a couple of weeks, with a 6 billion dollar problem between projected revenues and estimated spending.  Which may be part of the reason Republican Governor Charlie Crist is such a big fan of the stimulus package about to be passed largely by Congressional Democrats.

From the St. Pete Times:

Crist predicted Florida’s share of the stimulus would be almost enough to cover next year’s projected budget deficit, unofficially between $5 billion and $6 billion.

“It’s very, very encouraging,” Crist said. “I shudder to think what it would be like if this wasn’t moving forward.”

Which is all good for this year.  Next year may be an entirely different story.

I don’t know that anyone knows everything that is in the bill.  At $787 billion and over 1500 pages with so little time for analysis, it seems impossible that anyone knows what’s being approved.  Maybe even more surprising is that it’s not unusual for massive bills to be approved by congress with little time for analysis.  Representatives and Senators regularly depend on their staffs to digest the text of huge spending measures and advise them how to vote.  Of course, those aides would understandably agree with the person who signs the checks … but I’m off on a bit of a tangent.

Governor Crist has seemed pretty chummy with President Obama … introducing him at his town hall meeting in Fort Myers earlier this week.  And The Miami Herald reports the state GOP is none to pleased.

As Democrats lavish praise on Florida’s Republican governor for enthusiastically supporting their economic stimulus package, Republicans are questioning whether Crist damaged his future.

”I don’t think he’s helped any national Republican ambitions he may have by stepping up to the plate and batting for the other team. . . . There’s a difference between working in a bipartisan way for the common good and switching sides and putting on the other team’s jersey,” said veteran Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. “At the one moment when we’ve finally found our voice and remember who we are as Republicans, Charlie Crist forgets. It’s stunning.”

So it appears at least that Governor Crist MAY, and I’ll emphasize again MAY be hopeful that the stimulus package (and some even say that’s a misnomer) will allow the legislature to delay, or in a best case scenario avoid entirely, making very difficult budget decisions.  Whether or not that’s a good idea will be debated at length, I’m sure, and what it means for city governments is certainly unknown.  But it will make the upcoming legislative session interesting to watch … and for better or worse, I’ve got time for that.

Sig

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Filed under Economy, Florida Legislature, State Politics, Stimulus

Perceptions

There was an article today in The Florida Times-Union about legislators attempting to close some sales tax loopholes in an effort to balance the state budget … which may show a deficit approaching $6 billion dollars in the coming fiscal year.

These tax breaks are on things like Superbowl and other luxury skybox tickets.  Bottled water, and probably ostrich feed are among the 240 or so sales tax exemptions being considered.

Ostrich feed is one of those things that always comes up in any sale tax exemption discussion as arguably one of the most egregious and specialized tax exemptions on the books.  Apparently at some point ostrich farming was going to be some kind of big economic boon to the state, and ostrich farmers lobbied … successfully … to have the feed exempted from sales tax.

People always ask, too, why sky box tickets and Super Bowl tickets and other such things are exempt from sales tax.  The argument against the exemption always goes that people who can afford Super Bowl tickets can afford to pay sales tax on them.  Same for luxury sky boxes.  Of course, the other side says that having the tickets exempt from the tax makes Florida more competitive in attracting the Super Bowl … the weather in February and fairly new stadiums not withstanding.

Granted, closing those tax loopholes won’t close a 6 billion dollar budget gap.  But think about the perception.

It seems that even if it’s not big amounts of money, the legislature might want to consider how it looks to continue them.  I drink a lot of bottled water, but I CAN drink it cold and filtered from the refrigerator it I want.  We’re already paying for decent water to come from the taps, though I have to admit, bottled water almost ALWAYS tastes better.

So maybe it is time to take a look at the exemptions as they exist.  I’m all for paying as little in taxes as anyone, but I’m also not too keen on living in a bankrupt state … or city for that matter, but that’s another post.

If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  At the end of the day, it’s finally going to come down to a choice between generating additional revenue or doing without essential services or popular programs.   That’s the choice that will have to be made. Either one will require political will, which sometimes seems to be in short supply.

So even if closing these sales tax loopholes doesn’t generate the billions of dollars of revenue needed to erase the deficit, it’s probably good policy to at least LOOK at them.  It will show those of us who PAY the taxes that the legislature is serious about making choices.

And from my perspective … difficult choices need to be made.

Sig

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Filed under Forida Legislature, Politics, Taxes, Thoughts