Floridians to blame for squeezed budget

It seemed like a great idea.

Amendment 9 proposed a reduction in class sizes, which necessitates a hiring of teachers. Everyone would win. The teachers would have more jobs and children receive a better education in more intimate environments.

But, Florida’s voters forgot to read the fine print. Amendment 9 had a dirty little secret. Namely, the amendment came with a multi billion dollar price tag.

That secret played a decisive role in the race for governor. Challenger Bill McBride supported Amendment 9, but could not tell voters how he intended to finance the measure. That was, in the end, a key factor in his defeat.

Gov. Jeb Bush, on the other hand, vehemently opposed the amendment. He warned voters, saying “buyer beware.” He painted an ominous picture of nasty budget cuts to pay for the measure, should it pass.

Bush’s pleadings didn’t sway Florida voters, and, for better or worse, Amendment 9 is in the books. Tuesday, Bush made true on his statements and gave Florida a depressing look at what the new amendment will cost.

Bush released his new $54-billion budget proposal Tuesday. There will be a lot of political wrangling in Tallahassee before the final budget is released. But, to say the least, Bush’s proposal is a bad sign. The proposed cutbacks are nothing short of severe.

As many at USF feared, state universities will be feeling a tight pinch in 2003. Bush has proposed a $111-million cut in higher education, second only to transportation, which will feel the effects of a $200-million belt-tightening.

Bush is, of course, blaming the cuts on the voters and Amendment 9. Democratic leadership has called him a coward, and critics point out that he has earmarked more than $80 million for his education initiative. Some say he is using Amendment 9 as a convenient excuse.

No one but Bush himself will know if the cuts are really the result of Amendment 9 or part of a “devious plan” for higher education and other programs.

Either way, it seems Florida voters have no one to blame but themselves. It was, for months, reported that Amendment 9 would have some serious side effects. Florida voters were savvy enough not to elect a gubernatorial candidate who supported the measure as a major part of his platform but didn’t know how to pay for it.

Bush warned, and Florida didn’t listen. Maybe the benefit to the youth of the state was just too alluring. Maybe the public didn’t believe the cost would be that bad. Either way, it passed.

Like him or not, agree with him or not and believe him or not, by approving Amendment 9, Florida voters gave Bush a political pillow on which to land. No matter what kind of horrifying cuts he makes, he can continue to blame it on the amendment and make a decent argument.

But those are now mostly arguments for 2002, and hindsight is 20/20.

Now that it appears the damage has been done, what will the budget cuts mean for Florida universities?

A painful hit will be felt by the students. Tuition will rise by up to 12.5 percent. On top of that, students will find themselves having a more difficult time getting classes they need.

The summer schedule was cut severely last year. If it is cut again, it will be virtually nonexistent. Graduating on time, at its best a difficult task, will become even harder. Classes will be larger, rendering professors less accessible. And it is quite possible the educational experience in the state of Florida will suffer.

Professors will also feel the heat. There have already been complaints about heavy workloads, hiring freezes and departmental budget cuts. Also, raises may be hard to come by, which could serve to further inflame a USF faculty still reeling from USF President Judy Genshaft’s $90,000 raise.

Faculty leaders continue to point out that, according to university averages, USF professors are underpaid. Hopes for improvement in the next few years seem to have suffered a setback.

But Bush’s budget is not Armageddon. There will, if it passes, be a rebirth of the sales tax holiday, which was widely popular. Senior citizens will also benefit from the proposals.

But several important programs will be left out in the cold.

The struggling Department of Children and Families has become a topic for debate because it will not receive the amount of money it requested. In addition, it has been speculated that Bush will borrow a few billion dollars to pay for Amendment 9. That will increase Florida’s debt.

But a difficult 2003 might not be the end of the cutbacks. Florida voters have passed initiatives for several other expensive projects. The budgets may only get tighter in future years, and the state may suffer more.

Is the future really that bleak for Florida? The possibility is certainly there. The money has to come from somewhere.

But, Florida should not complain. This is, after all, what the voters wanted.