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Lawmakers are in session, keep a hand on your wallet

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By The Staff

Florida legislators have a tough job ahead of them, dealing with the newest budget crisis and the projected $2 billion shortfall in revenue. They are meeting in a two-week special session to decide just how to deal with shrinking state coffers.

The housing market slump is one of the many reasons there’s a shortfall but a significant one, with home construction being one of the state’s largest industries. When buying a house, homeowners buy documentary stamps in proportion to the purchase price of the home.

That tax revenue is down $80.5 million more than predicted or two-thirds of what was in the previous budget year.

On the state’s other major funding front, sales tax collection is down because there are fewer visitors to Florida and personal spending is down. There are no economic indicators suggesting this downward spiral will change anytime soon in any segment of the economy.

Optimistic financial gurus are suggesting things may stop spinning toward the end of 2009. Pessimistic ones are looking at mid 2010.

Florida’s legislators cannot operate in the red or with a budget deficit. To make up the shortfall they will have to make lots of cuts – again. Those cuts should not come from education. Nor should health care take the hit.

Public safety must remain a priority. Social net programs would be a tough cut because more and more Floridians are relying on such programs as they struggle with their personal hard times – and there has been a 49 percent increase in food stamp recipients in recent months.

But those areas will see further budget reductions. Committee chairmen were already talking about the percentages before the session began.

Budget cuts should come from those “special” projects and reducing the size of government. The time may also be right to eliminate double-dipping – retiring from a position and returning to collect a pension and a salary. If the person, department or special project is not necessary and is not in the best interest of Floridians, it needs to be axed.

Each year, the state grants $25 billion in corporate and land use tax exemptions. Perhaps some of those exemptions should be removed or some of the loopholes closed. Six- and seven-figure estates should have to graze more than six or seven head of cattle to qualify as agricultural property.

The state’s chief financial officer, Alex Sink, has suggested, because of cutting costs, new revenue resources must be considered as well. New revenue sources in legislative lingo translates to new or higher taxes.

We’ve seen a few suggestions for tax increases but none that will cover the most recent loss projections. And Florida is the wrong place for any politician to so much as utter the word, “tax.” In the Sunshine State, that is a political four-letter word that has caused more than one lawmaker to fall from grace.

But law breakers are fair game and it looks like traffic fines are on the road to an increase. Fines are expected to increase by $10 to $25, and motorists who go to traffic school may no longer get an 18 percent off the infraction.

Next week will reveal the financial wisdom of our legislators and the governor as they plug this hole in the state’s treasury that reported an additional $100 million leak on Monday. This session should also be a preview of coming attractions. The regular assembly is coming in March and the financial forecast calls for an additional $4 billion revenue shortage.

The year 2009 is not the year for the average citizen to totally ignore the actions of our legislators. As always, we should remain mindful of solutions proposed by our lawmakers. Remember that Will Rogers warned us to keep our hands on our wallets when the legislators are in session.