Tallahassee fiddles as housing costs burn workers | Editorial

When it comes to helping people of modest means find affordable housing in one of the nation’s most expensive places to live, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature this year took another pass.

When it comes to helping South Florida businesses address the challenge of recruiting and retaining workers who increasingly spend 40 to 50 percent of their paychecks on housing, Tallahassee shrugged it off yet again.

And when it comes to doing what they said they would do — spend a dedicated portion of real estate taxes on affordable housing programs — well, you didn’t think they really meant that, did you?

In a year when the state budget grew by $6 billion, it’s hard to understand why Gov. Scott and the Florida Legislature would raid the money meant to address the crisis in affordable housing to address the crisis in school safety.

But that’s what happened.

To put $400 million toward hardening schools, increasing mental health services and equipping some school personnel with guns, the governor and state lawmakers robbed the piggy bank for workforce housing.

For a moment, it appeared this year would be different, that lawmakers would end their decade-long raid on the Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Funds.

In the early days of the annual session, Florida Senate President Joe Negron refused to go along with Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s push to sweep the trust funds for money to spend on pet projects, tax breaks and other priorities.

But the Parkland school shooting “changed everything,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, who chaired the Senate’s Appropriations Committee.

Let’s get real.

Last year’s budget was $82.3 billion. This year’s budget is $88.7 billion. Are we to believe the so-called fiscal conservatives running Tallahassee saw their only choice as robbing Peter to pay Paul?

In the end, while blaming the Parkland school shooting, they stripped $185 million from the $300 million on tap for affordable housing.

Then they patted themselves on the back for a job well done.

Worse, they boasted about having allocated “record” levels of funding for schools, even as they shortchanged public education. After subtracting the financial obligations they place on public schools, larger districts, including Broward and Miami-Dade, will get only 47 cents more per pupil next year to keep the lights on and give teachers a raise.

An extra 47 cents — in a record-setting $88.7 billion state budget.

Superintendents say they will be hard-pressed to give raises to teachers, who, given the push for them to carry guns, deserve to be paid like the first responders they are.

To help teachers in Miami-Dade afford a place to live, meanwhile, the school system is talking about building affordable housing units on school campuses. It’s an idea worth considering, much like some universities offer faculty housing. A better alternative, though, would be to pay teachers what they’re worth so they can live where they want.

Given the bait-and-switch on taxes paid to support affordable housing programs, you can understand the cynicism expressed Thursday by Tallahassee reporters who participated in a Tower Forum panel in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

“They raid the Sadowski Trust Fund year after year and their rationale is, ‘They can’t possibly spend it all in one year,’ ” said Steve Bousquet, capital bureau chief for the Tampa Bay Times.

“The only trust fund that cannot be swept is the trust fund for concealed weapons permits. That’s the only sacred cow,” said Dara Kam, senior reporter for the News Service of Florida.

“Joe Negron, during a Q-and-A, said, ‘I don’t even know why they call it a trust fund.’ He wasn’t saying that as a bad thing. He was serious. He was saying, ‘We shouldn’t call it a trust fund,’ ” said Dan Sweeney, who covers the Legislature for the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Problem is, it is a trust fund.

In 1991, the Legislature passed a law that places a 10-cent surcharge on every $100 paid for real estate — for the purpose of funding affordable housing programs.

Talk to any South Florida business or political leader and they’ll tell you skyrocketing rents and home prices are critical issues in our economy. There’s a shortage of rentals for people of lesser means and the cost of starter homes is out of sight for young workers.

“One thing I hear from a lot of folks in real estate and housing is that they wouldn’t have supported Sadowski when they had the opportunity if they’d known this would have happened,” said Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca, who moderated the panel discussion and is running for election to the Legislature.

LaMarca described the challenge facing too many workers in Broward’s economy, including service workers at beach hotels.

“A good deal of those employees, who take care of the rooms and make everyone have a great experience, probably live multiple bus rides and an hour-plus away because of housing issues,” he said.

“We should have options. People should have the opportunity to live in a safe, clean environment that’s not two hours from work.”

Voters have a chance to make a difference this November.

Vote for those who have a track record of keeping their word and a focus on solving the state’s problems.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.

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