2017-03-16 / Opinion

For want of a nail

Florida’s State Legislature is back at work in Tallahassee. Their task is to craft the state budget. Our governor has weighed in with his own budget proposal. He would like to boost state funding to a new high, engineer a $618 million tax cut for businesses and excise $1.1 billion in state spending, with hospitals taking most of the hit. It also would include squirreling away $5 billion in “rainy day” reserves should the state coffers unexpectedly require an infusion of cash.

In assessing the tenor of the upcoming negotiations, Max Dixon for Politico Florida writes, “The governor’s plan is laced with potential land-mines that will make portions of it untenable for legislative leaders, who will push hard for their priorities. That’s not uncommon this early in the budget process, but without question, clear fault lines exist between the governor and both chambers of the Legislature.”

That is something of an understatement. The governor and the Legislature are already at war over the governor’s most fervent funding priorities. They include $85 million to fund Enterprise Florida for business recruitment and $76 million to fund Visit Florida to boost the state’s tourism.

The Legislature is not in the mood to rubber-stamp Scott’s proposal. The lawmakers in the House first offered a bill to completely gut both agencies but may ultimately settle for something less draconian.

Those who support Scott’s funding request for the agencies are quick to come to their defense. They include the state’s most powerful, private sector stakeholders, and the special interests of agriculture, tourism and the state’s major utilities. The Florida Chamber of Commerce is at the head of the pack.

It says its mission in Tallahassee is to lobby on behalf of the private sector for “an annual competitiveness agenda, referred to as the Florida Business Agenda.”

The agenda is a “set of policy priorities that will help grow private sector jobs, continue to create economic opportunity in Florida and diversify our economy.” The chamber‘s punchline? “Free enterprise works, but it is never free.”

The chamber warns, without tax subsidies supporting job creation in the private sector and special interest perks to juice the free market, Florida’s economy will suffer in the present and tank in the future in tough times.

They might as easily have argued, “For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the knight was lost, for want of a knight the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost.” Woe to Florida for want of a nail.

It is the “never free” part of the chamber’s declaration that is at the crux of the budget negotiation. Some lawmakers call tax expenditures for these purposes “corporate welfare,” a tax giveaway of benefit primarily to for-profit ventures that don’t need the help. Those supporting the funding say it is warranted if Florida is to keep its competitive edge, invariably offering a rosy calculus of the taxpayers’ future return on investment, i.e., jobs, jobs, jobs.

It is a classic, perennial tug-of-war. Anytime a perceived excess of tax dollars is in search of a purpose, there is no absence of special interests and lobbyists who want to give them one. They round-up legislative allies and become a phalanx of rainmakers, pounding the drums and chanting the job creation mantra, orchestrating the necessary pow-wows, to inspire a downpour of tax dollars.

Dressed in the garb of the public interest and paychecks for people, they spin deal-serving rationalizations and cause/ effect claims to get to “yes.” But alas, for all the successes paraded and promised returns on investment, the state’s failed hopes are buried in a boneyard filled with the evidence of misspent enthusiasm — enough that healthy skepticism is warranted.

This skepticism is now in play in Tallahassee, although one might reasonably suspect it is the right perspective for the wrong reason. But that is just politics in a nutshell.

Some lawmakers take the long view: Might a better plan be to invest in human capital and build a highly skilled labor force to attract good paying jobs? Or how about investing in the kind of 21st-century infrastructure that attracts and stimulates world-class entrepreneurship? Sadly, It is a hard argument to make.

Up-selling a long-term plan to term-limited legislators doesn’t work well. Most lawmakers are far more interested in the short-term gratification of a ribbon-cutting and photo-op than waiting out an adolescent’s graduation as an adult into the job market, or the information superhighway paving the way to high-paying jobs in Belle Glade. The shelf life of a politician expires long before patient capital invested on a 10-year plan comes to fruition. Alternatively, when the you-know-what hits the fan and all those promised, high-paying jobs fall short or fail to materialize at all, the lawmakers responsible are long gone from Dodge City and the robbers have taken the money and run. ¦

— Leslie Lilly is a native Floridian. Her professional career spans more than 25 years leading major philanthropic institutions in the South and Appalachia. She writes frequently on issues of politics, public policy and philanthropy, earning national recognition for her leadership in the charitable sector. She resides with her family and pugs in Jupiter. Email her at llilly@floridaweekly.com and read past blog posts on Tumblr at llilly15. Tumblr.com.

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