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GOP Needs to Put Our Money Where Its Mouth Is

You can’t cut taxes enough to satisfy people who think their government is lousy.

[Photo: iStock]
That doesn’t seem to stop the Republicans from trying, though. So in the final three days of January, we were treated to the spectacle of Gov. Charlie Crist first exulting in the property-tax cuts he imposed on local governments (where he personally will never have to account for any cut they make), then, instead of cutting the state’s own budget, dipping into the state’s so-called “rainy day” fund and one-time revenue to keep from making serious cuts in state government programs.

A little earlier in the month, on a cool mid-January day, the Republican Speaker of the House, Marco Rubio, rode the elevator to the 22nd floor of the Capitol to offer his recurring riff against the size of Florida government and offered a different two-step — a complaint about government spending and a complaint about the unsatisfactory quality of education.

In fact, Rubio told the business writers gathered there that Florida is starting to look like Cuba. Really. “Florida is starting to resemble the place I came here to get away from,” said Rubio, the first Cuban-American Speaker of the House. (Actually he was born in Miami, to parents from Cuba.)

Rubio complained about “the red-tape tax — how much does it cost to comply with government regulations in Florida?” And he spoke of people “paying taxes they cannot afford to pay.”

Barely were those words out of his mouth when he began promoting the need for “a world-class curriculum” in Florida. “We have to accept the notion that our children are competing with children halfway across the world,”

Rubio said. “They are at a huge, enormous competitive disadvantage.”

It’s not clear what non-tax potion will produce this (higher tuition maybe?) — and Rubio has been outdoing everyone else on anti-tax rhetoric the past few months. At the very universities where businesses would like to see determined progress toward higher educational quality (this fourth-largest state has only one top-50 university), presidents were desperately cutting faculty slots and reducing travel and research support because tax revenue wasn’t meeting expectations (as anybody reading the headlines last fall could have told them would happen).

Crist at least is setting aside $138 million in this supposedly stringent budget year just to replace K-12 taxes lost to his tax-cut amendment. He proposes an overall 5.6% increase in per-pupil spending, but you can thank the much-reviled class-size amendment for propelling the growth in school spending. Rubio has already criticized Crist for tapping non-recurring revenue for recurring expenses.

But today if we want to sell a good idea, we have to sell it as a business necessity, not as a societal good, which no one in politics seems to care about. The reason for a world-class curriculum, Rubio told the business writers, is so “people say, ‘That’s the place I want to risk my capital’ ” and choose Florida over other possible business locations.

As for smaller government, what would we boldly get rid of, among all government services, that would help bring government into line with Rubio’s preferred scale? Well, he’d heard, but had not confirmed, that there is a metric commission, “to help Floridians adjust to the metric system.” He called it “an amazing development.”

It isn’t true. But even if it were, we could cut out a score of “metric commissions” and make barely a dent in state government spending, since all of general government (including the governor’s office and the Legislature) makes up just 3.25% of the state’s $70-billion budget this year.

Heaven knows we need to look for things that were good ideas once but no longer are. But to pretend that these sorts of things are a bold reconsideration of government is silliness.

Marco Rubio
In one breath Rubio complains about people paying “taxes they can’t afford to pay.” In the next, he laments the lack of investment in “a world-class curriculum.”

Right after Rubio spoke to the business writers, Senate President Ken Pruitt came up. He totally avoided the smaller-government routine (which should give you an idea of where any grand ideas of Rubio & Co. might end up). But he echoed the theme of business-purposed education.

“It’s about education — world-class education,” he said, adding his support for giving universities “the base funding they need” and pointing to Florida’s “more knowledge-based economy.” Then he mused, “How many more philosophers do we have to have in the state of Florida?”

He really said that. Maybe if we cut out all the philosophy departments, we could produce world-class physics departments? Hey, how about English lit? If we don’t need Aristotle, why Shakespeare and Faulkner? They probably don’t read that in China anyway.

Crist, meanwhile, was crowing about an Education Week ranking that he said put Florida 14th in the nation in education performance, up from 31st the year before. Well, OK. The Education Week “Quality Counts” report gave Florida a C+, while the nation as a whole got a C. We got an F in college readiness, C’s in achievement, B’s in standards. We got a C- in education funding.

But wait — there’s more

And it’s not just education that’s getting more rhetoric than investment.

If we doubled the general taxes of this state for a year, it would not pay for the backlog in transportation needs that has built up over years of unmanaged growth and underfunded road building.

And growth management? “Do away with DCA,” someone in the audience called out during Rubio’s talk. DCA is the Department of Community Affairs, which reviews local-government decisions on major developments.

“Anything you want,” replied Rubio, but first a House review process has to work through the possibilities. DCA would at least be a bold proposal. It certainly counts as one of the least effective government agencies in that responsibility, mainly because developer-loving governors of both parties have never really and truly wanted it to be anything else.

“I obviously believe with all my heart,” Rubio said, that this year presents “more than just challenges and crisis ... an opportunity to redefine Florida’s economy, to redefine Florida’s government and set it up for the next 50 years.”

But higher ambition requires clarity of vision and the same salesmanship that Crist and others put into tax cuts. Will we see, out of this Legislature or in this election year, a political leader crisscrossing the state advocating a serious investment in “world-class education”? Or in other fundamental challenges like transportation and growth?

Nah. Talk is much cheaper.