During his eight-year reign as governor of Florida, Jeb Bush fashioned an economic time bomb. On his way out the door he lit the fuse. His handiwork will soon devastate this state and visit unprecedented suffering on its people. It will be a nightmare, part of which will imperil the public schools, the operation of local governments and the state retirement system.
The government of the State of Florida realizes most of its revenues by way of sales and use taxes, intangible taxes and corporate income taxes. Sales and use taxes are the most regressive and hit poor, working and retired people the hardest. These taxes have done nothing but increase and when they are discussed in the halls of government it is always in the context of raising them.
Meanwhile, if he could have, Jeb Bush would have relieved Florida’s wealthy persons and corporate entities of their entire tax burden. As it stands he came very near his goal. Tax loopholes created during his administration for corporate income now shelter between $500 and $600 million that was counted as revenue before. $600 million more was lost to the state when Bush eliminated the tax on intangible properties (stocks and bonds) in January 2007.
Jeb Bush tried to privatize all things profitable and make the people assume all risk associated with investment. His program gave a leg up to charter schools and turned elements of the state’s water supply, public roads and social services over to wealthy investors. The lynchpin of his healthcare agenda was to turn Medicaid into a private managed health care system. That program was piloted in five counties and has failed miserably. The Department of Children and Families was turned into a massive private gamble that money could be made off Florida’s most vulnerable children.
When investments went bad the working people of Florida ate the loss. In 2002 the state’s short-term investment and pension funds lost $334 million as Enron collapsed, three times the loss of any other fund in the nation. Jeb Bush’s minions invested in Edison charter schools when the stock was valued at $37 and got out when it was worth 14 cents. Another $500 million of the public’s money was lost to enable other corporate adventures.
But the worst was yet to come! Because although term limits forced Jeb Bush to give up his Tallahassee office in 2006, it did not thwart his plan for turning the apparatus of state government into his own personal cash cow. First he put one of his stooges, Coleman Stipanovich, in charge of making decisions for the multi-billion dollar Local Government Investment Pool and the Florida Retirement System. Then he got himself a spot on the Board of Directors of Lehman Brothers, the giant Wall Street financial services corporation. This unholy alliance has borne bitter fruits.
The now resigned Stipanovich made $1.5 billion in bad investments, $842 million of them purchased through Lehman Brothers. The pension fund now holds $756 million in worthless paper related to the housing market meltdown, almost 8% of its cash holdings. The state’s short-term investment fund is faced with similar losses. Jeb Bush and Lehman Brothers won’t be losing any sleep over it though because the vulnerability has been dumped on Florida’s 1.1 million current and retired state workers, hundreds of school districts and local governments, the state-created Citizens Property Insurance, and the state treasury.
This fiscal year the state treasury suffered the first waves of the tsunami that is coming. The servile Florida State Legislature was called back into special session barely six months after passing a $71 billion budget to address a 1.1 billion dollar revenue shortfall. Among other things these servants of the wealthy took $100 from each of Florida’s public school children to rebalance the budget. The lights had not been turned out in the Capitol Building when the Office of Policy and Budget projected an additional $2.5 billion revenue shortfall over the next 18 months.
And Florida, now weakened by the greed and avarice of a few, faces a growing crisis in its second largest industry after tourism. To get a sense of the outlook for agriculture consider these recent statements and their sources:
· “We’re not in any old drought. We’re in what I like to call the biblical drought.” Shannon Estenoz, member of the South Florida Water Management District’s (SFWMD) governing board.
· “We are facing Armageddon. I think we are going to see massive crop losses we have never seen before.” Malcolm Wade, member of the SFWMD and a Vice-President of U.S. Sugar.
· “We are beginning to see some of the initial signs of collapse. If you’re a farmer, you’re going into the spring season with a greater than 50 percent chance you’re not going to have enough water to make a crop.” Nelson Mongiovi, director of the division of marketing, Florida Department of Agriculture.
The crisis in agriculture threatens to shrink the state’s revenues by up to $8 billion more over the next five year.
Governor Charlie Crist is reportedly “torqued off” at the insurance companies and wants property taxes to “drop like a rock” but neither sentiment is more than public theatrics. The Governor and State Legislature have no answers because the only solution requires they turn on their masters. In the property tax amendment debate Gov. Crist has been reduced to a carnival barker for the Florida Association of Realtors, Florida Power & Light, the Florida Medical Association, Wal-Mart, and private prison builders The GEO Group. These corporate giants are driving this campaign with millions in contributions to advance their own interests.
Truth be told there is no salvation to be found in higher sales taxes for working people, or slightly lower property taxes for the average homeowner, or reduced funding for schools, fire and police protection, or shredding the social safety net, or higher rates of unemployment, homelessness, crime and violence. Florida’s survival now hinges on one question, “Can the people force Jeb Bush and his corporate band of reverse-Robin Hood’s to give up enough of their ill-gotten wealth for the sake of everyone’s survival?”
The men in charge in Florida have looked over the horizon and seen the inferno that lies ahead. They fear only one force-their many victims united and mobilized in acts of resistance. Concessions (like reduced health care benefits for teachers) are a dead end! One concession will beget another and another until we have nothing to give up. We must fight!
They have already begun sowing seeds of division hoping to block any uprising as human misery and deprivation spread across the state. They don’t expect their sham property tax proposals to result in lower property tax bills. They expect the measure to pit desperate homeowners against teachers, fire fighters, police officers, and other workers living paycheck to paycheck. In their campaign for Amendment 1, as always, they will attempt to sharpen racial divisions. In Miami-Dade that has taken the form of a manufactured uprising of the parents at Emerson Elementary School with the goal of splitting the Black and Hispanic communities and advance certain school board members vendetta against the Superintendant. They will point the finger at immigrant workers, local governments, and district school boards. Any scapegoat will do to divert attention from them as they execute the final phases of their plan to destroy the public schools.
PAUL A. MOORE is a Miami-Dade County Teacher.