Florida is expected to have a budget surplus of $1 billion or more this year, and Gov. Rick Scott wants to return half of that to the public through tax and fee cuts.
Giving citizens such relief will help the economy and household finances.
But as the governor and lawmakers fashion a budget this year, they also should address some of the state’s long-neglected needs.
Of particular concern are mental health and substance abuse care.
Florida ranks 49th in mental health per capita spending and has cut client services more than $41 million in the past two years.
This means gravely troubled individuals are on the street, posing a danger to themselves and society.
This means many families can’t get treatment for loved ones. It means more expenses for law enforcement and health care operations.
When it comes to mental health and substance abuse, Florida’s safety net is thoroughly shredded. The state spends about what it did in the 1950s on per-person treatment.
Consider: The Florida Department of Children and Families estimates only 34 percent of adult mental health need is met in Florida, and just 27 percent of children’s mental health need is met.
State law enforcement officials say each year 125,000 people who need mental health care are arrested and booked into jails. About $600 million is spent a year housing mentally ill people in Florida prisons or other facilities.
Florida devotes about half of its mental health dollars to institutional care, which may be necessary, but this forsakes the needs of those with manageable conditions who might avoid the need for costly services with proper treatment.
The problem is not going to go away.
According to the Florida Council for Community Mental Health, about one in five adults experience a mental health disorder in a given year, and one in 10 children live with serious mental or emotional disorders. Adults living with serious mental illness die 25 years earlier than other Americans, often due to treatable medical conditions that are neglected.
Many Florida families simply cannot afford the cost of treatment. Yet simply leaving the mentally ill to their own devices is certain to create heavy costs for taxpayers — and heartbreak for families.
Scott and lawmakers should see that investing in mental health care treatment will ultimately save money — and lives — and provide more support.