Florida’s 160 lawmakers in the state House and Senate opened their latest legislative session Tuesday with COVID-19 and a $2 billion budget shortfall created by the pandemic hanging over their heads. With a lot of needs and not enough money to fund them, the Miami Herald Editorial Board recommends lawmakers focus on five areas.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is proposing a $1 billion fund to help local governments build infrastructure to address the impacts of climate change. South Florida not only is Ground Zero for sea level rise, but it also has its share of influential lawmakers who should push to make the governor’s proposal a reality (Rep. Daniel Perez of Miami, for example, is in line to become House speaker in 2024). They should go one step farther and work to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution and increase clean energy. But that’s wishful thinking in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
After fish kills that plagued Biscayne Bay last year, our local delegation should bring home some relief on that front. They are seeking state funds to convert septic tanks into sewer lines along the estuary, delegation chair Sen. Ana Maria Rodriguez told the Editorial Board. There’s also a Republican bill (SB 1482) to create the Biscayne Bay Commission to coordinate policy and projects that benefit the estuary.
It’s also time lawmakers ban oil and gas wells in the Everglades Protection Area, as proposed in Senate Bill 722 filed by Rodriguez, R-Doral. She should expand her bill to include Big Cypress National Reserve, where a Texas company filed for permits this year to build infrastructure for future oil drilling.
Florida’s unemployment system was designed to make it hard for Floridians to access benefits. And it failed its coronavirus test in spectacular fashion. The $78 million CONNECT website crashed early in the pandemic because of the high volume of requests. Applications were lost; people waited for hours on the phone only to be hung up on; and some people waited months to get their payments.
We wish all it took were a few tweaks, but the system is not worth saving, Department of Economic Opportunity Director Dane Eagle told senators Monday after ordering a third-party analysis.
It will be expensive to build a new one — up to $244 million over five years — and lawmakers haven’t said whether they are on board with it. But, thanks to the current botched system that became an embarrassment for the state, they might not have an alternative.
Florida’s unemployment issues aren’t just technical. Benefit payments are among the lowest in the nation at a maximum of $275 per week — and recipients get these payments for among the shortest periods of time. Democrats have filed bills to raise payments and their duration, but those are dead on arrival in this Legislature, unfortunately.
House Speaker Chris Sprowls has said he’s against raising benefits because it could lead to tax hikes for businesses. But at $50 per employee, Florida companies pay the lowest unemployment tax contribution in the nation, falling behind the U.S. average of $277; our tax rate falls 29 percent below what the U.S. Department of Labor considers an “adequate financing rate.”
It’s become normal practice for lawmakers to raid Florida’s affordable-housing trust fund to plug holes in the state budget. That fund, which comes from taxes levied on real-estate transactions, builds new homes, helps low-income people buy their own home and repairs existing ones. More than 275,000 renters in South Florida were considered “cost burdened” in 2019, meaning they spend more than 40 percent of their income on housing. They, and so many others, need relief. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated that need to keep the Sadowski Housing Trust Fund reserved solely for its intended purpose, and Senate Bill 510, which has cleared two committees, would ensure that.
Fund public education
During the Great Recession, K-12 funding suffered cuts from which Florida has struggled to recover. DeSantis wants to increase funding by $290 million, but Republican leadership in the House and Senate, who put the state budget together, haven’t ruled out cuts.
With close to 88,000 students missing from Florida classrooms during the pandemic (20,000 of those in Miami-Dade and Broward), school districts are at risk of losing money because the state funding formula is based on attendance. Given these unprecedented times, lawmakers should consider changing that formula for the next school year.
Funding is just the tip of the iceberg. The learning gap the pandemic has created is also looming. There are some good proposals being discussed in Tallahassee, such as investing more on prekindergarten providers and giving free books to struggling readers. At the same time, Republicans are fast-tracking a bill to expand Florida’s school-voucher programs and provide more state dollars for students attending private schools, money that’s truly needed in public education.
Internet sales taxes
With Florida’s financial shortfall, there’s low-hanging fruit that will help the state budget: requiring out-of-state online retailers to collect sales taxes. The 6 percent tax is owed — but seldom collected — because current law relies on the consumer to send the money to the state. Not only is that unfair to brick-and-mortar businesses, but it means the state leaves millions of dollars each year on the table.
Bills to change that have been filed since the early 2000s, but lawmakers have been afraid of being accused of creating a new tax. With the current financial pressure, let’s hope lawmakers find the backbone to pass this year’s version, House Bill 15 and Senate Bill 50.