Florida’s Debt Burden Eased
Policy + Politics

Florida’s Debt Burden Eased

For two decades Florida's debt had been rising, climbing as much as $1 billion a year as the state built schools, bought land and embarked on new toll roads to deal with its growth.

Even 12 years of Republican control over state government did little to bring down the overall debt owed by the state.

But that finally changed this year.

State officials on Tuesday released an annual report that shows for the first time in at least 20 years Florida's overall debt has dropped by some $500 million. Florida has $27.7 billion overall in outstanding debt.

The main reasons for the decline include a decision by state lawmakers to stop borrowing money for the Florida Forever land-buying program as well as a decision by Gov. Rick Scott this past spring to veto more than $100 million worth of college construction projects. That means the state wound up paying off more this year than it borrowed.

Scott made it clear early on that he was uncomfortable with some of the borrowing that had been going under previous GOP governors and that he wanted to cut back on it.

"I don't want to burden future generations," Scott said on Tuesday. "I think whether you are Republican or Democrat you need to be concerned about your debt levels."

While Florida lawmakers must annually pass a balanced budget, they have been able to spread out over 20 to 30 years the cost of new school buildings or the cost of acquiring environmentally-sensitive lands. This year the state is paying $2.2 billion to cover past debts.

The state annually releases a report that shows the size of its debt, the size of its reserves and the projection for future borrowing.

The latest report shows that the amount of money the state has been spending each year on its past IOUs has more than doubled since 2001. This increase in debt service, as it is called, has made it harder for state lawmakers to balance the budget as the recession sent overall state revenues tumbling.

Depending on what legislators do, the state is now projected to borrow about $5 billion over the next decade. Environmental groups, for example, have pushed to reinstate the Florida Forever program to purchase property and preserve it from development.

Scott, however, said that he would only support borrowing if it is for "infrastructure projects that will help us grow the state."

Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and the Senate budget chief, said legislators probably agree with Scott, right now, that the state's level of borrowing should be kept in check.

"I don't disagree with the governor that in these challenging economic times that we don't overextend ourselves," Alexander said.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.