State spending continues to grow

The Republican mantra of “less government” has won over voters, helping the party establish dominance in state politics and leaving Democrats virtually powerless.

But the $63.1 billion budget awaiting the signature of Gov. Jeb Bush is not only the state’s largest ever, it reverses a trend of cutting the budget for most of Bush’s seven years in office. Last month, Bush said the $5 billion in additional spending this year made him “twitch.”

“I think (Republicans) should be careful,” Bush said last week. “We should be the conservative party.”

Even as the size of the budget has increased in total dollars, the state cut spending in four of Bush’s first five years in office after adjusting for population growth and inflation.

Much of the state’s budget consists of federal money being administered by the state and trust fund allocations set in statute. Lawmakers directly control the general revenue part of the budget, about $25 billion this year.

An analysis of the fluctuations in general revenue spending shows that the Republican budget knife has been effective the past two years.

After an expected round of vetoes, this year’s general revenue budget will be $1,370 per capita or more. That’s higher than the $1,332 spent the year before Bush took office and much higher than the $1,236 per person two years ago.

Republicans cite reasons for the increase, including expensive voter mandates to cut class sizes and pay for pre-kindergarten classes beginning this fall. They also cite a bump in spending to help hurricane victims last year, though the hurricanes also generated a tax windfall from sales taxes.

Bush has simultaneously expressed angst about the budget ballooning while taking credit for it, citing economic activity caused by tax cuts since he took office.

“It’s ugly in terms of the amount of money,” Bush said of the budget. “But our economy is running so strong because of those tax cuts that we have increased economic activity to the point where . . . the cup is running over up here.”

This year, Florida will cut about $250 million in taxes, about half of it from halving the intangibles tax paid mostly by wealthy investors. But this year’s tax cuts are only about one-fourth the amount Bush pushed through in his first year, 1999.

Bush also said that much of this year’s allocated money won’t be spent right away, instead being set aside for infrastructure improvements in the future. And he also points to the state’s reserve fund, which may grow to $2 billion or more this year, the highest ever.

“There’s good, underlying conservative fiscal policy there,” he said.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the spending patterns would have been much the same if Democrats were in control because the budget is less about ideology and more about the whims of the economy, which dictate how much tax money the state can spend.

“This is not a budget (history) of fiscal conservatism,” Gelber said.

So far, the spending growth hasn’t led to a backlash from advocates for smaller government in the GOP camp.

Randall Holcombe is a Florida State economics professor and a senior fellow at the conservative James Madison Institute.

He said efforts to improve education and high-profile tax breaks have insulated Republicans from criticism.

“I don’t think the public knows what’s being spent,” he said. “But they see we still have the sales tax holiday (on back to school items in the summer). There’s not going to be this public perception that there is in increase in spending.”

John Hallman is the Florida director for FreedomWorks, a national group that advocates smaller government. He applauds lawmakers for addressing needs in education and transportation, but he said they need to do so by spending less.

“We do think that government is spending too much in Florida, although there are a lot of good things happening,” Hallman said. “We’d rather see lawmakers give the surplus back to the taxpayers.”

Hallman and his group are pushing for a “Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights,” a constitutional amendment to limit growth of the annual budget to population and inflation, requiring a super-majority vote in the Legislature to exceed the limits.

The effort has one notable fan: The chairman of the House budget committee, Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Even though this year’s budget, crafted in large part under Negron’s watch, would have been trimmed by billions if the “bill of rights” were in effect, he said it’s a needed constraint on lawmakers.

“All of us (in both parties) have to struggle against the constant temptation to be co-opted by the establishment of government,” Negron said. “That’s why I think to have this constitutional limit is a healthy discipline.”

Sen. Ron Klein, D-Delray Beach, called the Republican “less government” dogma “ridiculous.” He cited a growing reliance on property taxes, including a provision in this year’s budget that allows school districts to raise property taxes by about $100 million this year.

“All their calls for ‘less government, less taxes, less spending,’ you find that’s a lot of political rhetoric,” said Klein. “I think as long as Republicans stay in power and the public begins over time to understand that the government in Tallahassee has only gotten bigger, and we’re spending more by saying one thing and doing another, you’re not being straight up with the public.”

Bush said the Legislature may not be as conservative as he’d like, but it passed a budget this year that addresses the state’s needs without profligate spending.

“It doesn’t look like the Legislature acted like a bunch of drunken sailors,” he said. “I think they just had a couple glasses of wine.”