Austerity in Heaven’s Corridor

The Left should be paying attention to Florida. If you’ve ever desired a nightmarish vision of the legislature-driven austerity measures sure to proliferate around the country in the coming years, look no further than the Sunshine State’s 2012 budget. With little protest, Florida lawmakers are eviscerating public welfare and rapidly turning the state into a haven for the exploitation of workers. Despite the laughable “moderation narratives” now propagating in local newspaper coverage — which depict it as part of a trend away from rightist absolutism — the 2012 budget is nothing less than an unqualified victory for free market zealots everywhere: its legislatively-imposed austerity measures and multi-billion dollar tax cuts will no doubt serve as a useful model for other “business friendly” Southern states and the country as a whole.

For thirteen consecutive years, Republicans have controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature. Florida is effectively a one-party dictatorship: local papers treat any mild disagreement among the conservative faithful as evidence of moderate tendencies in the legislature. The reality is that Governor Rick Scott, elected during the 2010 wave of Tea Party victories, is so stridently right-wing (and the state Democrats so weak) that opposition to the leadership’s more draconian proposals inevitably comes from other Republicans. A few, such as centrist Paula Dockery, have fairly consistently voiced disapproval of their colleagues’ more egregious actions, but this dissent is highly circumstantial: decisive opposition to the notorious prison privatization plan, for instance, came from two Senators with direct ties to law enforcement. And the Parent Empowerment Act, a highly controversial proposal allowing for the swift conversion of neighborhood schools into publicly-funded charters via parental petition, was scuttled not by a united front of political moderates, but by intra-Republican skepticism.

As the national debate over forced transvaginal ultrasound demonstrated, new legislation is often tactically front-loaded with all sorts of detestable right-wing red meat. When a public outcry inevitably ensues, the offensive rider is excised with much fanfare, leaving the reactionary core intact. Immiseration goes down smoother if everyone can say they passed up at least one poisoned apple.

The 2012 Florida budget is a perfect example of this overarching strategy. On its own terms, it is a document of frightening severity, inflicted on a state with little risk of popular backlash. Scott and the Republican leadership may be widely despised, but the Sunshine State lacks the formations capable of challenging the imposition of austerity, such as what we’ve seen in Madison and Zucotti Park. I don’t want to downplay the noble efforts of the Floridian Occupiers (yes, they exist) but the state’s overwhelmingly suburban geography, its lack of density and dearth of prominent public space, prevents the sort of spectacular urban reclamation that made Occupy so compelling. And unionized public workers, the warp and woof of the Madison eruption, are a tiny minority of Florida’s total employed. Fittingly, the 2012 budget disproportionately harms university students and state workers, the two groups actively resisting the descent into austerity. From the Tampa Bay Times:

The 60-day legislative session that ended Friday was largely dominated by small reforms on a few pocketbook proposals. Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-led Legislature honored their pledge not to raise taxes, an article of faith for them in an election year. But to fill a $2 billion budget gap, they cut about $300 million from universities and colleges, $1 billion from state worker pensions, and made another round of deep spending cuts in prisons, health care and social services.

That $300 million figure is a bit misleading. The actual, aggregate cut to students is far deeper if you include the decrease in financial aid ($487 million or 4.4%) and the inevitable tuition hikes of 5% (for community college students) and 15% (for university students). Technically the budget only “allows” for such drastic increases, but Florida’s eleven state universities have consistently hiked up tuition by 15% for each of the past four years. Compared nationally, Florida tuition is still relatively cheap, a fact constantly cited by rate hike apologists, including university presidents. Scott claims to oppose tuition increases (although he has happily signed off on them), but may support a bill allowing the University of Florida and Florida State University to increase tuition further, towards an ill-defined but substantially higher market rate for higher education. As for state workers — who haven’t had a raise in six years — the brutal $1 billion pension cut is accomplished through a continuing 3% salary reduction, recently ruled unconstitutional but currently under appeal. The budget also liquidates 4,355 state jobs, an odd maneuver for a governor supposedly interested in “getting Florida back to work” and facing a 9.6% unemployment rate. Workers still employed by the state will now be subject to random drug tests (politicians excluded, of course) in an attempt to stamp out abusers,”whatever that means.

Not content with sacrificing students and state employees to their experiment in austerity, the sick and the elderly are also in for a dose of the legislature’s tough love. Medicaid funds for hospitals and nursing homes will be cut by $340 million. Like much of the budget, this is actually a deepening of 2011’s cuts (about $700 million): in sum, that’s a deprivation of more than $1 billion in medical support for residents most in need of publicly-funded health care. Urban hospitals, many of them in the populous southeastern corridor, will bear the brunt of the overall cut.

The budget’s widely touted expenditures are in fact little more than a crude attempt at sustaining the veneer of publicly funded social goods. Florida narrowly dodged $100 million in cuts to mental health and substance abuse programs, once again through a last-ditch ad hoc coalition: a motley crew of law enforcement officials, Republican politicians, health care advocates, and members of the judiciary successfully lobbied for funding that approximates 2011 levels. Florida’s per-capita mental health financing is already ranked 50th in the US, and deep cuts would have had immediate disastrous effects across the state. Even redneck county sheriffs recognize the apocalyptic shadings of forcing hordes of the mentally ill to roam the state’s multitudinous strip malls.

In terms of primary and secondary education, the budget’s much-vaunted $1.1 billion increase in funding doesn’t even offset last year’s $1.35 billion cut. Politicians have been praising this awkward bit of sleight-of-hand as a boon for public education and local papers sometimes mention the funding boost with shocking historical blindness, blissfully ignoring the overall loss of $250 million. That deficit will grow as more students enroll: Seminole County is already predicting teacher layoffs; Orange County Schools may end up $25 million in the red. And even with PEA’s demise, the budget still includes $55 million for charter school construction. Traditional public schools? $0. Privatization marches on.

So, who benefits from this austere budget and its accompanying legislation? Not surprisingly, capitalists of all shapes and stripes. In 2012, businesses will receive $750 million in tax “relief,” with $2.5 billion in further tax cuts accruing over the next few years. With recent history in mind, the Tampa Bay Times reports:

After his election in 2010, Scott launched a plan to create 700,000 jobs in seven years, with the cornerstone being a multibillion-dollar push to slash business taxes. At the top of the list: phasing out the state’s 5.5 percent corporate income tax. The Legislature surged ahead with that plan this year, approving a $50,000 exemption to the tax, doubling last year’s cut and taking nearly 4,000 more businesses off the tax rolls. The corporate tax cut, valued at nearly $30 million, is part of a $150 million tax relief package backed by Scott that includes breaks for manufacturing equipment ($56.4 million), private planes ($12.3 million), and tangible personal property ($20 million).

Before you start shaking with rage at a government which fires teachers while giving a tax break to owners of private planes, bear in mind that it only eliminates sales taxes on repair and parts. The rich, graciously acknowledging that they must contribute their fair share, are frugally tuning up their old planes instead of purchasing ostentatious new ones. We all have to make sacrifices if we’re going to pull through the Great Recession.

The full list of tax breaks paints a grotesque but accurate portrait of the diverse subgroups within Florida’s bourgeoisie: faux-populist ranchers, managerial charter profiteers, neo-Confederate citrus plantation owners, still-panicked real estate swindlers eager to take a mulligan and rewind to 2005. But Scott’s plan — which may eventually eliminate corporate taxes entirely in a right-to-work state that already lacks a personal income tax — is the Hayekian wet dream everyone in Florida’s ruling class freak show can agree on. Banks got in on the feeding frenzy too:

Lawmakers in the Republican-dominated Legislature went above and beyond Scott’s proposed cuts, offering a cornucopia of tax reductions and incentives worth several billion dollars over the next few years. A $1.5 billion tax credit program was unveiled and passed in the final hours of the session. It was pitched as a way to help shore up Florida’s undercapitalized insurance market. Senate budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the idea came from “one of the big banks.” The program could net $225 million in fees for the bank that ends up managing the program. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, got lawmakers to sign off on a last-minute $830 million package of temporary reductions in unemployment compensation taxes for employers. While state economists say the cut could leave Florida undercapitalized if another recession hits, the business community hailed it as a huge win.

Indeed. The business lobby can barely contain their glee: the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, and the Associated Industries of Florida have all declared victory and moved on to funding candidates in the 2012 elections. The FCofC had a particularly successful year, ramming twenty-five supported bills, provisions, and other items through the legislature. Their recently-released legislative summary celebrates the session as a hard-fought capitalist triumph over the Floridian working class: “Despite a $2 billion budget gap, the challenges of redistricting, an election season and the distraction of the attempted expansion of Las Vegas-style casino gambling,” they write, “lawmakers furthered the Florida Chamber’s goal of securing Florida’s future by ending the 2012 Legislative Session without a single new tax, higher fee, new regulation or union-backed mandate.”

Meanwhile, lack of revenue is crippling less affluent counties, which, following the collapse of the housing market, can no longer rely on property taxes as a reliable source of income. Polk, my former county of residence, has lost $96 million in recurring operating revenue due to the diminution of property values since 2007. The loss of those funds — combined with state-imposed tax cuts and pervasive anti-tax doxa among county officials — means more jobs and service cuts are on the horizon.

The situation in Florida is indisputably dire and almost certain to devolve further. The 9.6% unemployment rate, down a smidgen from 11.1% when Scott took office, remains well above the national average. In many counties, unemployment is far worse. Polk’s rate, for example, currently stands at 10.5%, a comparative “improvement” likely due to the addition of temporary, seasonal jobs in agriculture and frustrated unemployed workers simply giving up the search. Scott’s stated ambition of adding 700,000 jobs (in the private sector, of course) remains a pipe dream: according to recent figures, only 54,200 jobs — many of them low-wage—have been added since his governorship began. But this may be the point: a standing army of the unemployed — many of whom have been recently tossed out of decently-paying government jobs—will continue to drive down wages in a state whose annual mean income is $4,000 lower than the national average. The current despotic pivot should be obvious to anyone familiar with structural adjustment: having fully consolidated their political power, the capitalist class is moving to enact the strategic and long-term immiseration of Florida workers. The sunny suburban locale of this political-economic laboratory shouldn’t isolate it from our critical gaze. Marked by a liquidation of the public sector, the destruction of pensions and facilities for the aged, an explosion of student-borne costs in higher education, and intense competition for jobs by desperate workers on the brink of pauperism, Florida’s predicament is a tiny slice of Greece in the Most Magical Place on Earth. Teetering on the brink of the nineteenth century, its regressive future may be ours too: it’s a small world after all.