Word of Appreciation for Florida's Tax System
Around the State
Listen to Florida's short-sellers and you'd think the tax system in this state is crumbling like a moldy cracker.
It's true, we're in the fourth straight year of budget shortfalls, we need money for education, for roads, for social services. But to hear some in the media and in government talk, the only way Florida is going to survive this sour economy is with a massive overhaul of its tax structure.
This is broken-record talk. It's the same fiscally reckless refrain I've heard since the day I arrived in Florida 35 years ago.
Here it is straight: If you've got a conservative bone in your body, you don't want your state government hitting taxpayers up for more money to disappear in piles of pork disguised as must-haves.
Look at state trust funds quietly raided year after year for projects and programs that bear no relation to the use for which they were intended. The Bright Futures Scholarship Fund -- now fleeced to the bone -- is about as good an example as there is.
Look at the $5 million approved this year for a world-class regatta in Sarasota.
Look at the two big ticket items for 2012 that got virtually no scrutiny in legislative committees -- $6.9 million for the University of South Florida-Heart Health Institute and $2.5 million for St. Petersburg College marine science labs and classrooms.
Must-haves? No. No way. Not this year.
We need to be cutting where we can before we start talking tax system overhaul (read new taxes and fees).
It's true, Florida’s state treasury is primarily based on sales tax revenue and excise taxes (such as motor fuel taxes, documentary stamp and one-time intangible taxes on deeds and mortgages, and cigarette and alcoholic beverage taxes), along with licensing and registration fees. That's a mighty thin, even volatile base.
But ours is one of only seven states with no state income tax; even our sales tax is only 6 percent. Combine that with $1,589 per capita in property tax collections and you find out you're living in the 6th least expensive state in the nation.
And if I hadn't lived anywhere else, I probably would have joined the woe-is-Florida naysayers a long time ago. I grew up in Connecticut, which should explain my perspective. Connecticut, fourth most expensive state in the country, has the nation's highest per capita income, but it collects more than $5,000 per resident on average, the most in the U.S.
Floridians often say they don't want their state to look as fiscally unkempt as California or Illinois. But states you might think do a better job of collecting and spending revenue than Florida really do not. Mississippi is a good example.
You might think the Magnolia State, collecting $1 million a day in gaming revenue, would be quite a bargain. It is not. Though the state only collects $793 per capita in property taxes, it has a 5 percent state income tax and a 7 percent sales tax -- plus the state even collects sales tax on food. Mississippi's annual vehicle tax and tag fee averages more than $300, yet don't expect that money to go for roads. The Mississippi Gulf Coast in particular has some of the worst roads in the country.
Be glad Florida has reached a time when its elected leaders in the Legislature and in the governor's office are determined to run the state with some semblance of financial restraint. They still make some dumb moves -- approving an entirely unneeded 12th state university in Lakeland, to the tune of $27 million in state start-up funds, plus $16 million for the University of South Florida. But in April the governor did veto 61 percent of Florida TaxWatch's "turkeys," totaling $63.1 million.
Here's what TaxWatch had to say:
“This year, the Legislature passed 21 bills that included Florida TaxWatch Government Cost Savings Task Force recommendations, and vetoing these projects will only increase the taxpayers’ savings. Moving the savings from vetoed turkeys into reserves will boost the state’s bond rating, and help lessen the potential for future shortfalls.”
Florida's heavily sales-tax-based revenue climate is a natural obstacle to wasting taxpayers' money.
Gov. Rick Scott has it right -- let's cut the pork first. Let's show how we balance our budget and stay out of taxpayers' pockets. In that regard, Florida is a model for the nation.
Our current tax system, lean and mean and as friendly to job creators as it is, means the Sunshine State does the best with what it has, the same as every resident, and homeowner has to do.
Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews or at (850) 727-0859.