Florida TaxWatch chief Dominic Calabro conceded Thursday that legislators might balk at spending money next year to improve government efficiency, but pointed to 15 innovations that wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime.
They include prison reforms and requiring the governor and Legislature to pass specific legislation every year directing agency chiefs to find ways to operate more efficiently.
“Revenue projections going into the 2017 legislative session suggest there will be just enough money to fund a continuation budget. A lot of it depends on the vagaries of the national economy and the like — particularly how tourism goes,” Calabro said during a news conference.
“If ever there was a time to have an efficiency gift to the taxpayers of Florida, this is it.”
Standing in front of a Christmas tree in the government watchdog organization’s Tallahassee headquarters, Calabro undid colorful wrapping paper containing a report the Government Efficiency Tax Force released in June, which included the recommendations he emphasized Thursday.
Together with ideas that would require some up-front investment, they would save a projected $2 billion annually.
State economist project taxes will just about pay for existing programs during the fiscal year that begins July 1, although Florida faces additional demands including fighting citrus canker and replenishing beaches scoured clean of sand by Hurricane Matthew.
And that’s before lawmakers consider state leaders’ spending priorities.
What’s more, the state faces deficits of at $1.3 billion one year from now and $1.9 billion the year after that.
The efficiency task force, on which Calabro served, proposes ways to streamline government every four years. Calabro said the group’s proposed Florida Government Efficiency Act would promote efficiency every year.
The law would require governors and lawmakers to identify cost savings when proposing and approving annual state budgets. State agency leaders would provide quarterly progress reports.
The law would have to pass each year before the state budget could.
“Let’s make use of this crisis” to create “something that’s structurally beneficial year after year after year,” Calabro said.
“What we need is a mechanism that prompts them to act and has consequences if they don’t. If they don’t implement it, that means we’re not able to do the kind of cleanup of Lake Okeechobee that we would like; we’re not able to make improvements to higher education we would like; we’re not able to make some of the reforms that the House likes or the governor likes.”
The freebie list includes a number of items involving criminal justice — including changing eligibility standards to allow the release of non-violent elderly inmates to save as much as $80 million annually.
Deploying risks and needs assessments during sentencing, to identify offenders who require less supervision, would save $2.8 million every year. And it might ease overcrowding that has contributed to scandals within the Department of Corrections, Calabro said.
“We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s make sure the sentence fits the crime, and that it will actually be beneficial to us. A lot of prisons are nothing more than crime colleges,” he said. “We can reduce crime, save money, and really improve people’s lives by helping to avoid it.”
You can download the task force report, containing a complete list of the recommendations, here. Appendix A features draft language for the proposed efficiency legislation.