Wednesday, 01 February 2023

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Auntie Najwa's Unsolicited and Savvy Advice on Dim Futures

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Salaam Dearies,

Imagine the following scenario: You are a small business owner – perhaps running a little grocery store. Your wealthy cousin has a large outstanding balance at the store. You have a family health emergency and have to close the store and don’t know how long it’s going to take for everyone to get back to normal. Money is very tight, additional expenses crop up. Instead of collecting the money from your cousin, you agree not to be paid. You even give them back some of the money they paid you in the past. Then – predictably – money becomes tighter and tighter, and you cannot pay your own bills. So, you have a bright idea: Why not dip into the children’s college fund that your in-laws set up for their grandchildren? There’s lots of money there … no worries … the children won’t even notice. They don’t like school anyway. And your spouse … and the in-laws will understand that asking your cousin to pay for his groceries is just unpleasant. The cousin loves you and calls you a genius! To him, you’re the best thing since the sliced bread he never paid for. He can afford to send his kids to college … all at the expense of your children’s future. I would imagine that this kind of cowardice and bad business practices would make for some pretty tense family discussions – particularly with the in-laws.  

Now take this situation and place it into the Florida legislature – and evidently the discussions and the priorities are quite different. Big tax breaks for corporations … no problem. Just when the pandemic had already manifested last year, corporations got darn near $200 million in tax breaks … and the state got ready to additionally refund more than $500 million in corporate taxes already paid. Who needs a budget cushion during a pandemic in which millions lost their jobs and the tourism industry is tanking? Emergency preparation is for sissies! Those whiners in the panhandle that are still crying over losing everything during Hurricane Michael! If we have extra, let’s make sure our corporate donors get their gifts while the giving is good. And if there is a problem, we’ll make up for the shortfall like every year by raiding funds earmarked for other purposes. It’s not like it’s our money.  

Speaking of other people’s money: Enter the “Bright Futures” fund, which provides Florida High School graduates with scholarships for college credits based on merit and high academic achievement. The program pays 75% of tuition at public universities and has distributed more than $600 million in the last fiscal year. Florida families count on this money to avoid student debt.  And it’s not as though the legislature funds this. Bright Futures is funded from the proceeds of the Florida Lottery – private money from every-day people. Leaving aside for a minute the moral implications of funding children’s education with the proceeds of gambling, many Floridians play the lottery with the expectation that it helps educate Florida’s youth. That’s how it was ‘sold’ to Floridians. And it has helped thousands of families. To some Florida lawmakers, however, Bright Futures money has become the low-hanging fruit to make up for foreseeable budget shortfalls. Just like the Affordable Housing Fund that gets raided by the legislature on an annual basis … which is why affordable housing remains one of Florida’s biggest problems. Big problems for little people, however, don’t translate into priorities in Tallahassee. 

The Bright Futures program, which has made college semi-affordable for middle-class families may well be gutted by politicians who likely have no idea what it’s like to worry about paying for their own children’s or grandchildren’s education. Citing budget shortfalls because of COVID, Senator Dennis Baxley from Ocala – backed by Senate President Wilton Simpson of Trilby – want to raid a fund that currently supports about 112,000 students. Anything to avoid raising taxes on themselves or their donors. Why raise revenue when you can just take away benefits from Families and students who have prepared for years to meet scholarship requirements?

They don’t seem to get the simple math, so let’s go back to my family household example: Money must come in before money goes out. And there have to be savings for a rainy day – because rainy days will come. Children have to be fed, clothed and educated. This doesn’t only benefit one family – it benefits all of society. Yet the same people who famously tell people wearing flip-flops to pull themselves up by their bootstraps have no problem giving tax breaks to those who already have hundreds of pairs of boots in their closets. And if this philosophy leaves them unprepared for a predictable emergency, they claim to have ‘no choice’ but to raid the college fund that someone else set up. BTW: Freedom!! (I still don’t know what that really means …)

Incidentally, Senator Simpson claims that he’s doing the young people a favor by saving them from the disappointment of not finding a well-paying job after graduation. Therefore, certain majors are to receive less funding. And who needs to study the Liberal Arts? Who needs English, history, social sciences, the arts or philosophy anyway? Teachers? Artists? Journalists? Musicians? Writers? BAH! Senator Baxley claims he’s ‘connecting the education world with the real world.’ And if he’s trying to teach young people that in the “real world,” Florida families get royally ripped off, he’s doing a good job. Well Senators, if your plan goes through, you’re going to have to hire out-of-state graduates to spin your overall fiscal irresponsibility into something Floridians will buy as an American value. 

Luckily, it’s not over yet. Floridians from all walks of life oppose this steal on a very bipartisan platform of using common sense. Bright Futures is a very popular way to keep families from having to mortgage the house to send their kids to school.  Incidentally, keeping a roof over their heads also seems to be popular with Floridians. Just like the $15 minimum wage, which Florida voters approved to lift children out of poverty. Just like restoring voting rights for ex-felons. Thousands of people – 71,000 - have written in to voice their disapproval. The committee meeting to discuss this outrage was ‘postponed.’ Senator Baxley is open to revisions – let’s keep it that way!

Well Dearies, please feel free to call your Florida legislators and tell them what I think. And while we’re at it, let’s also tell them that the federal COVID relief funds are meant for the people – not for corporations - and should not be used to help corporations avoid paying employment tax. Come on, people! Really? What I would like to fund instead is some remedial budgeting lessons for out-of-touch Florida lawmakers … including perhaps a trip to the grocery store with a Florida family that has to live on a budget. It might be a real eye-opener. 

Until next time Dearies, be well and stay safe!

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