Jeb's slush funds

Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 10:18 p.m.

In his desperation to borrow and spend without having to raise taxes, Gov. Jeb Bush has hit upon his craftiest scheme to date. He's going to turn the state's trust funds into slush funds.

Call it a fiscal sleight of hand. In his budget proposal, Bush wants to take about $1.5 billion out of various dedicated trust funds and use that money to cover shortfalls in the general revenue budget.

There are a couple of obvious points to be made about Jeb's trust-fund-into-slush-fund shell game.

First, it wouldn't be necessary to cover shortfalls in the general revenue budget if Bush hadn't given away billions of dollars in tax breaks to the wealthy, or if he had had the courage to plug some of the special-interest holes in Florida's porous tax structure.

But lacking courage, the governor now proposes to rob Peter in order to pay Paul.

Second, the reason trust funds are established in the first place is to provide a dedicated source of funds in order to address specific problems.

And there is usually a nexus between the funding raised and the problem solved.

Thus, gasoline taxes in Florida are supposed to go specifically to fix the roads that motorists use. It is the purest form of user fee imaginable; that is, unless crafty politicians like Bush figure out that they can divert road repair money in order to help, say, prop up the schools.

Or take the documentary stamp tax on real estate transactions. Trust funds for those revenues help build affordable housing in Florida and buy endangered lands for preservation - two worthy purposes that will go by the boards if Bush's slush-not-trust scheme prevails.

Other dedicated sources of revenue help clean up leaking underground gasoline tanks, pay for recycling in Florida, renourish the beaches that draw millions of tourists a year to the Sunshine State and so on

In deciding that those earmarked dollars can be used in slush fund fashion, Bush betrays the trust of Floridians who supported establishment of those funds.

As Senate Budget Chair Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucy, told reporters this week, "Every trust fund has a purpose and prior Legislatures passed it for a reason. I don't look at trust funds, just because it has money in it, as a grab bag."

While there are undoubtedly trust funds that have outlived their purposes and could stand legislative scrutiny, simply diverting trust fund dollars for political expediency is lousy public policy.

But then, Bush is all about politics, not policy. We just hope state legislators won't get confused about the distinction between trust funds and slush funds.

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