Friday, September 14, 2007

Sentencing the state to failure

By Elisa Cramer

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Friday, September 14, 2007

Palm Beach County will set aside nearly $20 million next year toward the nearly $300 million cost of a new jail. Good thing. Couple Gov. Crist's plan to cut $24 million from statewide prekindergarten classes and programs that help keep teenagers from becoming inmates with Palm Beach County's recent cut of $1 million from Head Start, and even more jail cells will be needed.

It's been less than a year since Gov. Crist signaled that he was leaving behind the state's backward strategy of spending millions to warehouse kids who get into trouble instead of helping them stay out of trouble in the first place. But how he and state legislators handle the $1 billion budget shortage will prove whether Jeb Bush's counterproductive punishment-over-prevention legacy endures.

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"We want to preserve the funding in education to the classroom, we want to make sure the most vulnerable among us are protected while we reduce and tighten our belt. And we also want to make sure public safety is always paramount and well-funded," Gov. Crist said last week as he proposed budget cuts that would include $22 million from the state's voluntary prekindergarten program and a total of $2.1 million from the successful PACE Center for Girls and the Children in Need of Services/Families in Need of Services (CINS/FINS) program.

Maybe children at risk of becoming unready parents or those born to unready parents and at risk of becoming criminals are not the "most vulnerable among us" Gov. Crist was referring to.

One of the numerous studies that have proven the value of early care and education programs showed that each tax dollar invested in a Michigan preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds saved the public more than $17. But rather than wanting to improve Florida's voluntary pre-K program with higher standards and better-trained teachers (and, as a result, boost enrollment), Gov. Crist sees potential for "savings."

When the Legislature finally meets in a special session to deal with the budget deficit, it'll be, as Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, described, "a budget-cutting session to slash social services. It's going to be ugly. It's like (a choice between) death by hanging or death by lethal injection."

No one's pretending that cutting $1 billion from the state's nearly $72 billion budget is easy. Unless, of course, you take the state's initial approach - dumping costs onto counties and cities or just plain refusing responsibility for core government functions. Surely, legislators would prefer to have a $4 billion revenue surplus (as they did going into the 2006 session) than a $1 billion deficit.

After Gov. Crist this summer asked all agencies to cut their budgets by 4 percent, some department heads might even concede that being forced to at least look for cuts has been useful in trimming inefficiencies and rooting out unworthy programs.

But the public is tiring of the Legislature's piecemeal political fixes and temporary relief. With more people in the state, there are more needs. To pay for more services to meet those needs, the state needs more money.

And not just one time. The gap between state duties and money to pay for them this year is $1 billion. But next year, it's projected to be $2.3 billion. Then $2.8 billion.

And yet, there are about $25 billion in sales taxes that the state doesn't bother to collect. The hundreds of exemptions include charter boat fishing trips, satellite dishes and stadium skyboxes. They should be reviewed, and many stopped.

The Republican-led Senate and the Republican-led House canceled the special session scheduled to start Tuesday because they could not agree with each other - or the state's Republican governor - on how to cut $1 billion.

Perhaps they can look to the new Florida Department of Children and Families for guidance. DCF is urging everyone - answering phones, investigating child abuse or supervising - to "put common sense first."

Common sense (and countless studies) conclude that one-size-fits-all, across-the-board budget cuts - as the Senate favors - will snare effective services, threaten public safety and quality of life and harm "the most vulnerable among us."

In other words, keep building more jail cells.

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