Putting Money Off-Limits Isn't Always the Wise Course

By: Lloyd Brown | Posted: December 3, 2013 3:55 AM
From the Right Coast

The state of Florida takes in a lot of money every year. Unfortunately, legislators can't spend most of it.

Only 36 percent of the state budget is in the general revenue fund. Most of the remainder is locked up in “trust” funds.

I don't trust them.

Most exist, I believe, because various lobbyists managed at one time or another to persuade legislators that it would be a good idea to dedicate a revenue source to a particular cause.

But it means that, when the state's priorities change because of circumstances or a policy shift, legislators may not have the funds to meet the changing needs.

One example is a trust fund established to buy land, the result of lobbying by Big Environment. Each year, the state would be buying land and taking it off the tax rolls, whether there was a genuine need to do so or not. The lands were called “endangered,” which is a term defined by politicians and bureaucrats and therefore meaningless.

The aim, of course, was to leave less private property in the state. Government already owns about half the land in Florida, but that's not enough for liberals, who hate the concept of private property.

At one time, revenue from taxes on cigarettes went into a trust fund intended to discourage smoking.

One state analyst, after looking at the policy from the standpoint of incentives, said, “I think I understand. We want people to buy cigarettes but not to smoke them.”

Gov. Jeb Bush tried to help correct the trust fund situation. His administration's budget office had a trust fund unit that looked at the various funds and tried through the Legislature to downsize those that were not justified. It actually made some progress but little has been done since then, to my knowledge.

Now that Florida is on the rebound from the recession, Gov. Rick Scott probably should renew the effort to correctly size the trust funds and put more money into general revenue where it can be reallocated by legislators to meet current priorities.

They may even find that they have more than necessary and choose to allow Florida residents to keep more of the money they have earned. That's what Bush did.

Occasionally the Legislature will move excess money from the trust funds but that always provokes hyperbolic editorials about “raiding.”

At the very least, trust funds should have an expiration date so that the need for them is re-examined from time to time, perhaps with “sunset” legislation. Priorities change from time to time and it makes no sense to have a large portion of the budget tied up addressing yesterday's needs.

Those who prefer to have taxing and spending on autopilot and ever-increasing will not be happy, but the Legislature should do what is right, regardless.

Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. After retirement he served as speech writer for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

Tags: News, Columns

Comments (1)

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