Burning Down the Budget

Enraging. Swift and secret. Who-you-know politics. These are just a few of the words recently used to describe the State of Florida’s budget. Its passage and subsequent veto actions by Governor Rick Scott sound more like the makings of a Game of Thrones episode than that of the seemingly mundane fiscal task of state elected officials.

Florida’s $78 billion state budget is no chump change, and Scott’s veto of $461 million is his largest in five years. Impacted the most were institutions of higher learning, the disabled community, state inmates and employees, medical research, the space program, and museums, just to name a few.

“When did Space Florida have a due diligence process?” state Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville told The St. Augustine Record. “I’ve never heard of it. … When you call yourself the ‘jobs’ governor or you’re the ‘keep Florida working’ governor, there is nobody who knows better what the jobs would be in their communities than the people who represent their districts.”

In fairness, while an appropriations process exists, many projects ending up on the veto chopping block are loaded into the budget on the back-end. This year’s budget included $300 million in last minute, local projects. But even then, most projects are thoroughly vetted by local governments, state agencies, educational institutions, and non-profits organizations, each focusing on the issues that are high priorities for local communities.

“What is more important than the state ensuring that sex offenders and predators are being strictly monitored according to statute? Nothing!’’ former probation officer Christina Bullins told the Miami Herald in response to Scott’s cuts to the community corrections budget. “How can they fund all this pork, but not fund probation to be in compliance with their duty to protect citizens? This is reckless.”

So what does this mean for Miami-Dade County? We fared the worst, with $43.3 million in cuts, but all the major counties in Florida were hit hard. Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Duval, Orange, and Pinellas, along with Miami-Dade, got slashed by more than $165 million, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

And many of the programs cut involved much-needed repairs to South Florida’s draining and sewer systems, with $750,000 cut from the Miami Beach Stormwater Project alone. For a city that’s been struggling to stay above water against rising sea levels, that’s a severe blow. Miami-Dade is seeking a rate increase to try to cover the difference and keep the county’s aging water and sewer infrastructure functional, but only time will tell if the County Commission will approve it.

As in previous years, there are always winners and losers. This year, though, even the winners are losers.

  • The University of Miami received funding for autism and cancer research, but was denied funding for its Cuban American Studies, particularly for elderly Cubans.
  • Florida International University’s (FIU) expansion plan hit a major road block by losing $5 million for a land swap, but the Miami-Dade County Fair and Expo should be pleased, since now they don’t want to move. And it’s a double whammy for FIU, which also lost $3 million in funding for mold remediation at their Biscayne Bay campus. Students beware.
  • Open space and transit advocates saw funding cut for the Underline Linear Park and Urban Trail in Miami. Knowing how passionate key transit activists are about this, however, the setback will only light a larger fire under their bellies.
  • State forestry firefighters, who earn as little as $24,000, were denied a $2,000 pay raise, leaving many Floridians praying for rainfall.
  • The Everglades received over $100 million for restoration projects, but the water conservation efforts demanded by the voters who overwhelmingly approved Amendment 1 fell far short of the promised $740 million. Activists have already filed a lawsuit in response.
  • And in a glimmer of good news, Camillus House received $500,000 to help sexually exploited adolescent girls. According to the Department of Justice, South Florida is the third-busiest area for sex trafficking in the United States, and many of the victims are children.

Whether you think Scott’s veto is good government or slash and burn politics may ultimately depends on whether or not your favorite project made the cut. One thing, though, is undeniable. Scott has come under fire for playing politics before, and politics is at the core of the appropriations process — from the moment the request is drafted by staff, to getting an organization’s board to approve it, to securing a state elected official as a sponsor to rally support, to finally surviving the swift action of a red pen at the hand of the governor. Otherwise, why would we need lobbyists?

The only way to have a say in what gets paid for in Florida is to get involved. State representatives have a huge impact in the projects that get proposed, whether they’re approved or not, yet their elections too often slip below the radar. Some even run unopposed. So pay attention, and hold them accountable.