For budget-writers tasked with fashioning a $70 billion-plus spending plan each year, the Great Recession has made them diligent students in the art of saying no.
For each of the past five years, Florida’s Republican governor and GOP-controlled Legislature have found government coffers too drained to meet the ever-growing costs of everything from public schools and universities to health insurance for the poor, unemployment benefits, new roads and environmental programs.
Now they are eyeing a future reservoir of black ink.
The state’s top economist told a budget-oversight panel last week that Florida’s long-range financial picture had brightened to the point that “fiscal measures” cutting budgets or raising taxes likely wouldn’t be needed through 2016 to bring the state budget into balance, as the constitution requires. In fact, the state is projected to have $2.7 billion in its three main reserve funds this year.
That brightening fiscal picture could fuel debates over whether to restore education spending to pre-2011 levels, phase in the federal Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid or make good on some of Gov. Rick Scott’s campaign pledges to cut corporate taxes.
But lawmakers are tempering expectations and focusing on a smaller number: $71.3 million the difference between general tax collections that can be spent next year and the anticipated growth in costs of government.
“This is not a time of milk and honey. It is one more year of blood, toil, sweat and tears,” said incoming Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Amy Baker, coordinator of the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, told lawmakers the report was the most optimistic her office has produced since it began turning them out six years ago. But spending pressures and potential outside threats remain.
“It just takes some of the pressure off,” she said. “It doesn’t say, ‘Everything is great, and we can fully fund some of the things we’ve cut in the past.’ It in no way implies that.”
Indeed, much could change in the economic world to alter that trajectory.