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Rich Templin: The great Florida surplus myth

Once again, the media is abuzz and many in the Florida Legislature are absolutely giddy at the prospect of what they call a budget surplus this year.

State fiscal analysts are predicting a surplus of about $635 million and the Governor’s Office, using a bit of fuzzy math that no one outside of his administration can understand, is projecting excess revenues of $1.3 billion.

While Senate President Andy Gardiner and Senate budget chief Sen. Tom Lee have been cautious at best, Gov. Rick Scott and Florida House leaders have been spraining their arms patting themselves on the back for their good fiscal stewardship and salivating over the tax cuts they hope to hand out like candy during an election year.

Scott has rolled out a $1 billion tax-cut package and he and his minions have been campaigning across the state, in the Capitol and anywhere else they can find a microphone, to get it passed in the Legislature.

All of the logos and printed materials look just like Scott’s last “Let’s Keep Working” election campaign leading many to believe that this is less about smart fiscal policy and more about the next U.S. Senate race.

The tax-cut package has several big ticket components including the permanent elimination of the corporate income tax for manufacturing and retail corporations (which costs $779 million each year), the permanent elimination of sales taxes paid on manufacturing equipment and machinery (which costs $76.9 million each year) and a 1 percent reduction on commercial property leases (which costs $339 million per year).

There are also temporary sales tax holidays that would cost about $75 million per year, but these have really become sales gimmicks for the big retailers and save working families very little money. So in short, as usual, Scott wants big tax cuts for big business while average taxpayers get pennies.

So how much is the surplus? $635 million? $1.3 billion? In reality…there is no surplus.

Webster’s Dictionary defines surplus as “an amount that is more than the amount that is needed.” It is true that the state has more money on hand than last year, but is it more than the amount needed? Not even close.

Average teacher salaries in Florida, adjusted for inflation, have fallen 6.5 percent. Florida had the fewest state employees per 10,000 in population than any state in 2013, almost half of the average number of employees in all the states.

Florida has not expanded Medicaid to uninsured Floridians earning less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Nearly 600,000 working Floridians would obtain health coverage if Medicaid were expanded.

Florida ranks 47th among the states in the percentage of uninsured children – 11 percent. That means that about 445,000 Florida children are without health coverage.

These are just a few examples of our poor record of funding critical social services, a record that is keeping Florida at or near the bottom in just about every indicator of a strong and vibrant state. We also have huge challenges with poor infrastructure and inadequate resources for environmental protection.

Working families need meaningful investments from state government to help get them back to work, not sales tax holidays that put pennies in their pockets while exploding the profits of Florida’s retailers.

Florida continues to suffer from a major revenue problem. We are home to the fourth wealthiest population in America but are cursed with the second most regressive tax system, meaning the middle class and working poor pay the bulk of the bills while the wealthy and big corporations reap all the benefits.

This so-called “surplus” and the haggling over what to do with it offers us an opportunity.

We can begin to discuss these issues once again as we work to close over $5 billion in corporate tax loopholes and exemptions so that Florida can begin to climb out of the hole created by 17 years of failed “trickle down” economic policies.

***

Rich Templin, Ph.D., is the Legislative Director for the Florida AFL-CIO which represents approximately 500 local labor unions and labor councils, representing over 900,000 workers, retirees and their families in Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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