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As many of you know, the legislature recently met in a special session to make significant cuts to the state’s budget for the current fiscal year. This special session was called as a direct result of the economic downturn our nation, our state and our individual communities have all been experiencing. This downturn led to subsequent cuts to many programs and it will definitely shape the policies we implement, as well as the final budget we pass during the upcoming regular session.
It isn’t an easy task to maintain a balanced budget, which is mandated by our constitution. When state revenues are dramatically down it requires either cutting funding to departments and programs or raising taxes. Many of my colleagues and I felt that now was not the time to further burden Florida’s families and businesses with additional taxes. No single solution will be able to resolve the deficit we are facing this spring. However, by making reductions in spending and using reserve funds, we have been able to steer clear of tax hikes and also were allowed to avoid major reductions to essential programs.
While we faced a $2.5 billion shortfall for this fiscal year, next year’s shortfall has the possibility of reaching $5-6 billion. I think this makes our decisions and our approach this year even more important. By tightening our collective belts and reducing spending in non-essential areas, we will be better prepared for future shortfalls. Using tax increases as a “band-aid” for this year will only delay the inevitable as we move into the next fiscal year.
Many citizens have voiced their concerns about the cuts that have been made to education. As chair for the Higher Education Committee and a father of three sons that attended public schools, the education of our children is a top priority. However, with the deficit we face, no program or department can be held harmless and education is no different. Considering education takes up over half of the budget, sparing education from cuts would unduly burden the departments that receive significantly less in appropriations (Health and Human Services is second with just over 25%). We have worked to cut as little as possible and maintain funding in areas that are essential to our youth that are enrolled in K-12 classes. Higher education as a whole will be aided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The stimulus bill will provide additional funding for Pell Grants, work-study programs and higher education tax credits. While the total amount of money allotted for each program is not fully known, it will certainly be a help to those that are looking to further their education in a time of economic hardship. The University of Florida will also be helped if a bill allowing tuition increases is successful during this session. The bill, currently in committee, will provide additional funding to the university system and bring tuition closer to the national average.
Although we are facing trying times economically, we are working to build a more efficient and effective government. Our decisions today, as tough as they may be, will go further in securing a stronger future for the generations that will follow. By requiring that our government live within its means we can remain confident that the state of Florida and its people will return to better economic times.
Steve Oelrich is the state senator for much of Levy County.