TALLAHASSEE – Florida will take another step into an era of declining expectations from its cash-strapped state government this week when the most austere in a series of tight annual budgets goes into effect.
It’s one of about 160 statutes that will go on the books Friday, the beginning of a new fiscal year.
Many of those laws, including the budget, carry out the conservative governing philosophies of Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the GOP-majority Legislature.
Among them is a hotly debated law that will effectively cut the pay of 655,000 public employees – if it survives a legal challenge – and a pair of landmark measures privatizing health care for poor and disabled Floridians that also are under fire.
Also going on the books are laws to require welfare applicants be drug tested, curtail abortion rights, crack down on “pill mills” that supply prescription painkillers to drug dealers and addicts and ban a designer drug often marketed as “bath salts.”
Three new laws will help usher out a technological era by deregulating landline telephone service, television picture tubes and access to outdoor theaters, all fading icons of 20th century modernity.
The $69.1 billion annual appropriations bill (SB 2000) and related laws comply with recommendations from Scott and orders from legislative leaders to cut spending rather than increase taxes to balance the budget.
“In these tough economic times, the people of Florida are forced to do more with less,” Scott wrote in his budget signing letter that also included dozens of line-item vetoes totaling a record $615 million.
Scott, a former hospital chain CEO, campaigned last year on a platform of spending cuts as well as reducing the regulation and taxation of businesses, which he believes will foster private-sector job creation.
If that happens it will come at least partly at the expense of public-sector jobs.
The budget eliminates about 4,500 state jobs, most of them filled. Agencies already have begun sending out pink slips. It also cuts $1.35 billion in education spending. That’s expected to result in more layoffs and unpaid leaves for teachers and other school district employees.
The new budget includes about $300 million in tax cuts and raises college and university tuition by 8 percent. The Board of Governors has added another 7 percent increase for the state’s 11 public universities for a 15 percent total.
It’s the fifth budget in a row without an across-the-board raise for state workers. Instead, they will see their paychecks shrink because of the new pension law (SB 2100) that drew a legal challenge even before going into effect.
The Florida Education Association, the state’s teachers union, sued June 20 to challenge the law that would require its members and other state and local employees to fork over 3 percent of their wages to the Florida Retirement System.
The pension plan has been fully supported by taxpayers since the 1970s. The employee contributions are expected to save the state and local governments $2 billion in the first year.
“It’s unfair and it breaks promises made to these employees when they chose to work to improve our state,” FEA President Andy Ford said.
Scott says it’s a matter of fairness because most private-sector pensions require employee contributions.