State Senator Dan Gelber says the 2009 legislative session is in absolute meltdown and it's unlikely that the Republicans in Tallahassee will be able to accomplish the only requirement of the annual session -- passing the budget.
After the downfall of corrupt Republican House leader Ray Sansom, Gelber said that the Republicans have no reliable leadership and that they don't really know what they are doing in terms of this year's session. At a time when Florida faces deep challenges, the majority party lacks the capacity to do much to meet those needs and it's likely the session will end next week with no budget deal in place.
Floridians are facing an economic crisis that is deeper than the national crisis -- and likely to last quite a bit longer -- and neither the Republicans in the legislature nor Governor Charlie Crist is providing us with the leadership we need to tackle the problems. Gelber said he remembers the big fight under Governor Jeb Bush was that Bush was too hands-on and it was difficult to keep him from doing damage. Under Crist, though, we have the opposite problem -- the governor doesn't want to come out and say what his plans are on any issue, leaving lawmakers without guidance as to how he'll react when legislation hits his desk. Gelber says Crist is like a movie critic -- he tells you how he feels about an issue without offering any solutions. The vacuum of leadership from the Republicans in Tallahassee means there is no good news from the session.
The primary purpose of the annual legislative session is to come up with the state's budget. Because of the national economic crisis and the more extreme state economic crisis, budget revenue has been in a freefall in recent months.
Gelber says that he's happy that the Senate budget plan has some significant increases in revenue. He's upset that the House isn't increasing revenue, but rather is relying on cuts that damage education, health care and other essential services. He hopes that the final budget deal doesn't strip out the revenue gains.
New revenue comes from several sources. The increase in the tobacco tax helps a lot, and is recurring, but diminishes over time. The stimulus money, while hugely important in the short term, only applies to a 25-month period and the revenue stream is gone. Without it, though, Gelber warns that the state could lose its bond rating and face even more serious cuts to basic services. In 2011, there will be a huge problem if more revenue isn't found, because the stimulus money will be gone. It could even lead to problems in 2010 if the economy doesn't rebound quick enough.
The real source for new revenue that should be pursued are the tax loopholes that have been widely discussed. Eliminating some of the more egregious loopholes could generate close to a billion in revenue each year.
Gelber had a lot to say about the importance of education and says that we need to be investing in the future, not cutting it. With the news yesterday that Jefferson County (immediately to the East of Tallahassee) has no money left in its education budget and will be taken over by the state, the issue is even more visible. The same crisis was almost faced by Dade schools. Dade avoided going under by cutting important programs and firing popular teachers in "nonessential" areas such as drama. Gelber stresses the importance of those other programs, saying they are essential to educating Florida's children. Florida is already a state that spends very little on education and in the last year or so, we've cut spending by about $500 per student. This is why the state is having trouble getting federal education stimulus funds and have had to ask for a waiver. Gelber thinks we'll get that waiver, though, which is good news since we're not sure what'll happen without it. He notes that, unlike himself, most of the legislature doesn't have children in public schools, so they don't see the direct effects their policies are having on our school system.
He also notes that while all of Florida's Republican representatives to Congress voted to reject stimulus funds, Republicans in the state legislature -- those who actually have to pass a budget and get things done -- are overwhelmingly for the stimulus plan and are asking for more. In Congress, he says, Republicans are a minority and have no responsibility and nothing to answer for. At the state level, they're actually in charge and have to show results, so they're doing the common sense thing and taking the money that Florida needs during this time of crisis.
Floridians can help spread the news on the budget cuts and other problems created by Republican policies by telling the personal stories of how government programs are affecting people's lives. Write letters to the editor, blog, tell your friends and neighbors how cuts hurt real people and maybe enough people will hear the story and can convince legislators to do the right thing.
Gelber condemned Dean Cannon's push for oil drilling and dismissed the recent talk of combining the drilling proposal with the "clean energy" bill being pushed for by Senator Jim King. Gelber doesn't think that compromise will go forward, although Gelber warns that every time he thinks something is too crazy for the Republicans to pursue, they do it anyway.
Luckily for Floridians, Gelber said he thinks the most extreme things floating around the legislature this year will die because of the dysfunction of the Republican leaders. It's unlikely that the elections bill, CSX bill, and offshore drilling proposals will make it to the governor's desk.
(Gelber recently reached out to bloggers by offering to do a series of conference calls with them to discuss the legislative session and provide us with the latest information on what's happening at the capitol. I, and several other bloggers, jumped at the opportunity. Our first conference call was last night.)