WEEKLY ROUNDUP – THE NUMBING NUMBERS

(Recap and analysis of the week in state government)

By KEITH LAING, THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

www.newsserviceflorida.com

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 13, 2009………It’s not often that a bunch of economists are in the spotlight, but when they know for sure what everybody else already thinks is true, the stars shine brightly.

Such was the case for the numbers guys late this week, as official Tallahassee gathered ’round to hear what state economists had to say about Florida’s economic woes. As expected, the economists again were not the bearers of good news, saying once more that things were worse then they previously predicted. Preliminary estimates show lawmakers will have $1.1 billion less in taxes coming in to spend for the current fiscal year ending June 30, and $2.4 billion less for the upcoming fiscal year.

The 2009-2010 figure reflects a 10-percent decline in general revenue compared to projections made in November, when economists estimated a general revenue budget of $22.4 billion. Based on the previous estimate, lawmakers in January trimmed $2.3 billion from the current year budget.

Sales tax revenue was way off. Real estate taxes, down as well. And corporate income taxes, don’t ask about that either. Gas tax collections are down too.

Officials from the state Department of Transportation told lawmakers this week that collections of fuel taxes are projected to be down $816 million over the lifespan of the DOT’s 2008-2013 year workplan because people are either by driving less or buying more fuel efficient vehicles.

Gas tax collections for the current fiscal year alone are expected to be off by $21 million and next year’s take is expected to be short $140 million, officials said this week. They added that DOT’s 5-year workplan has been already reduced by $7.2 billion over the last two years.

All told, the lower estimates make a difficult job more so, as lawmakers begin crafting a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. Ideas for blunting the awfulness include liberal use of federal stimulus dollars, striking a deal with the Seminole tribe for a cut of their gambling haul, cutting some sales tax exemptions, collecting Internet sales tax, increasing fees, and increasing taxes, particularly the cigarette tax.

But if revenue collections continue flying south for the winter, there might not be much of a budget left to craft.

THE UNSTACKED COURT

Any governor would envy a chief executive who gets to appoint half the Supreme Court in his first two years in office, a chance for a Gov to fundamentally alter the course of state law long after he or she departs the Governor’s Mansion. If they were so inclined, that is. And apparently, Florida’s straight down the middle governor is not inclined.

Crist tapped Eighteenth Judicial Circuit Judge James Perry this week for an opening on the Florida Supreme Court, marking the governor’s fourth high court nomination in less than a year. Perry, who is from Sanford, beat out three others for the spot, left open by the retirement of Justice Charles Wells.

Crist’s Supreme Court appointments could be the biggest influence the governor has had on Florida in the two years he’s been in office. His first two appointments, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston, are widely viewed as conservatives. But his second two, Jorge Labarga and now Perry, are viewed as more moderate choices.

Crist’s highway median Supreme Court choice, came much to the chagrin of hardliner Republicans if the party faithful’s muted reaction is an indication. Conservative lawmakers and interest groups, who praised the Canady and Polston picks, have anxiously waited for the chance to replace a Supreme Court largely nominated by former Gov. Lawton Chiles. It was a court that gave the party fits during the disputed 2000 presidential election and clashed with the Republican-led Legislature repeatedly since.

So to the hardest of the GOP hardliners, anything less than an FDR-style court packing plan would have probably been underwhelming. But this week’s nomination made it clear they are not getting any stack the court schemes from the self-proclaimed people’s governor, possibly leaving them asking themselves “Where’s the Justice?”

THE GREAT DEBATERS

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, in the midst of a heated exchange this week with Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, over a proposal to repeal public financing of political campaigns in Florida, said that lawmakers were “supposed to debate.” And debate they did, about campaign money, seat belts, class size and a host of other things.

Neither chamber went into session this week, but there was no shortage of disagreement in the halls of the Capitol. And perhaps no debate this week was a great as the one between Storms and Smith about campaign finance during a Senate committee meeting that again devolved into a partisan argument about President Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public money during last year’s presidential election.

The divide between Democrats and Republicans on the campaign finance repeal bill (SB 564) was on full display during the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Committee, though the panel later approved the bill unanimously. Storms argued that Obama’s decision to spend money raised by his campaign instead of accepting federal campaign assistance demonstrated flaws in the public financing system.

But Smith who ultimately voted yes on the bill, took exception to the Republicans’ argument, disputing the relevance of a federal election to state campaigns. That led to some contentious exchanges.

Storms said Democrats were unhappy with criticism of “the messiah,” Smith said Storms speech was “ten minutes of my life I’ll never get back” and accused her of trying to “jump through all kinds of intellectual hoops” to criticize President Obama. He then told her not to “piss on me and tell me it’s raining,” stunning the committee’s audience and its chair.

Debate over a proposal to allow police to pull over and ticket adult drivers if they see them not wearing a seat belt did not rise to that level of back-and-forth, but nonetheless was contentious. Currently the law is enforced primarily only for drivers under 18. Otherwise police can only ticket adult drivers for not being buckled in if they pull them over for something else and happen to notice they are not belted in. But a bill (SB 344) that would change that was approved by the Senate Transportation Committee this week over the staunch objections of Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, and Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis.

Siplin said he worries it will bring more racial profiling and Eustis said it simply creates too much of a nanny state. Backers argued those concerns were trumped by the number of lives they say the bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, will save and injuries they contend it will prevent.

For fans of great debate, it was certainly whirlwind week. But the best is yet to come, because with the news about dwindling revenue collections Friday, the big fight over the budget is just beginning.

STORY OF THE WEEK: The numbers are in for the state’s revenue collections, and they could not be any further south if they were in Key West. State economists broke the bad news this week about the state’s intake, which is now more than $6 billion below projects, making for a very unbalanced state checkbook.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “People have definitely changed their driving habits. When I saw Eli Manning last year getting a Cadillac Escalade hybrid (after winning the Super Bowl), I knew we were in trouble,” Kevin Thibault, Florida DOT Assistant Secretary for Engineering and Operations, lamenting the fact that state’s gas tax collections, which are a key component of the overall state revenue estimate, are running on fumes.

–END–
03/12/09

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