Opinion: Looking for savings in state government
For the first time in five years Florida lawmakers aren't expected to be face a budget shortfall when they convene this spring. But that doesn't mean the state needs to go on a spending spree or stop looking for ways to save taxpayers money and make government more efficient. One handy tool lawmakers can use to make help keep Florida on the right track is a list of proposals by Florida TaxWatch's Government Cost Savings Task Force. The business- and industry-backed group's most recent report, released last week, identifies 25 steps the state can take to save an estimated $1.2 billion. One recommendation — one we've independently supported for years — is considered a revenue enhancer, and that's to take much-needed steps to collect sales taxes owed on Internet sales. The task force calls this "the most significant tax compliance and collection issue facing Florida and other states …" By some estimates, the state and local governments are losing out on hundreds of millions of dollars of uncollected sales taxes on these purchases each year. This is money that could be used to help increase pay for teachers and avoid crippling blows to key programs, such as Florida Forever, the state's land preservation program, which has been neglected by the Legislature.The TaxWatch task force has a reasonable solution: Florida should adopt fully the Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement, which would allow it to collect sales taxes from a group of sellers that voluntarily collect them and remit the money to member states. Doing so would help level the playing field for "brick-and-mortar" businesses in Florida, which are required by law to collect sales taxes but are at a distinct disadvantage when competing with online retailers. The group also proposes that the Legislature adopt "E-Fairness" or "affiliate" legislation that "expands which companies must collect and remit the sales tax." This would address another major roadblock Florida faces to collecting the taxes now — the lack of a retailer's physical presence in Florida. If a retailer has a representative or an agent doing business in Florida, that should be enough to establish a "nexus" between the company and the state. Just because a business doesn't have its headquarters or other facilities in Florida doesn't mean it should be allowed to escape the same tax responsibilities that in-state businesses have. The task force has some other good suggestions: It makes business sense for the state to move toward a benefits system similar to that used by most private employers. Other recommendations in the report raise caution flags. The task force proposes expanding prison work release programs for "low-risk inmates," expanding electronic monitoring as an alternative to "non-violent" prison inmates serving all their time behind bars, and increasing the use of electronic monitoring to divert "non-violent offenders" from prison. Lawmakers need to be very careful if they consider these measures. Even inmates and offenders deemed "non-violent" or "low risk" can be menaces to communities. And relying on the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for a list of "non-violent offenses," as the task force's report does, doesn't offer any comfort, either. Burglary, grand theft auto, racketeering and drug trafficking are listed as non-violent offenses. But these are serious crimes that can devastate families, hurt innocent people and terrify communities. One ham-fisted recommendation doesn't merit consideration, much less adoption. It would limit the top Florida Bright Futures scholarship only to students who declare a major in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. Continuing to tighten the eligibility requirements for receiving a Bright Futures scholarship is fine — it needs to be earned. But telling students they can only receive the top-level award if they pursue a STEM field is unfair to individuals who excel in other areas. Students who qualify for the top honor, called the Florida Academic Scholars, should not be used as pawns to further the state's push for more STEM graduates. They should make that decision on their own and be free to study an area of their choice. STEM graduates by no means have a monopoly on enterprise and innovation. Florida TaxWatch, it seems to us, is not as reliably independent and objective as it once was. Last year, for instance, it failed to call the addition of Florida Polytechnic University to the state university system what is really is — a fat turkey and a waste of money. Yet it still can be counted on to produce thoughtful ideas for improving government. Floridians should be grateful that the organization strives to find ways to get the most out of our tax dollars.