Editorial: Florida Legislature sloughing responsibilities onto locals

Lawmakers should stop raiding trust funds and pushing costs for services onto local governments.

OCTAVIO JONES | Times Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court Pat Frank.

Floridians were bombarded before this year’s election with mailers and television ads portraying the Republican-led Legislature as a staunch advocate for schools, transportation and other essential public services. In reality, state lawmakers have been bleeding local governments for decades – sweeping dedicated funding away from state obligations and forcing local communities to tax themselves to plug the budgetary gap. It’s a fundamental cost shift that highlights the Legislature’s hypocrisy and the importance of demanding state lawmakers be more accountable when they meet next spring.

One reminder of this abdication of responsibility came this fall when Hillsborough County Clerk of Court Pat Frank filed a lawsuit against the state, alleging a double-whammy. She claims the Legislature placed an unconstitutional cap on the fees that local court clerks collect from their constituents, thereby creating an "arbitrary" funding base that bears no relation to the clerks’ actual costs. That prevents the counties from providing a level of service their residents need. Frank also accused the state of skimming money from 19 different fines and fees and diverting it to the state’s general fund rather than remitting it to the counties. Frank said her office has lost $10 million since 2009 as a result and stands to lose another $4 million this year. Tens of millions of dollars were also allegedly diverted in similar fashion from the rest of Florida’s 67 court clerks to pay for unrelated state expenses. Hillsborough has taken the lead on the lawsuit, and is being joined by Lee and Santa Rosa counties.

Frank’s lawsuit amounts to new lyrics on a familiar tune. For years, the Legislature has shirked its responsibilities to provide core services in Florida, sloughing off that obligation onto cities and counties even as lawmakers passed one bill after another to preempt local control. Since 2001, the Legislature has swept more than $2 billion in trust funds dedicated to affordable housing and redirected it instead to the general revenue budget, where it financed non-related spending or offset tax cuts. The net effect is that Florida’s housing crisis grew over time just as local communities had fewer resources to help working families cope with rapidly rising rents. Lawmakers did the same thing with Amendment 1 funds, redirecting tens of millions of dollars intended for land conservation to state salaries and overhead. The state’s greatest scam might have been in promising voters in 1986 that lottery money would enhance education. But it’s still a playbook Tallahassee follows to the present day.

Hillsborough voters face raised the county’s sales tax rate to the highest in Florida in part because the Legislature has not addressed the critical needs for schools and transportation in the growing urban counties. Certainly, some counties have not made the best of their tax dollars, but more and more are taxing themselves for core services – schools, transportation, health care, environmental protection – because the Legislature has refused to step up and set the right statewide priorities. Incumbent legislators had the gall to bury voters with misinformation in the campaign’s closing days about their own culpability in creating this services gap. When the Legislature opens its annual session next spring, voters should remind them to take their responsibilities seriously and force local governments to make up for their shortcomings.

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