For the first time in five years, Florida officials have approved borrowing $285 million to pay for school buildings.
Of that, the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine will receive $9 million this year.
But the pot of money the state is borrowing against is shrinking.
When Florida Governor Rick Scott rode into office on an anti-tax, Tea Party wave, he halted the issuing of bonds to finance projects like school construction.
The government watchdog group Florida TaxWatch tracks public dollars. CEO Dominic Calabro said that austerity helped the state’s financial outlook.
“What Florida has tried to do, what the governor and cabinet have tried to do, is not issue bonds. Use more cash more often and pay several billion dollars to reduce Florida’s long-term debt which got up to $27 billion,” he said.
Debt fell about $3 billion. Roughly $13 billion is owed in bonds for school building maintenance and construction.
Those bonds are issued against a trust fund that collects revenue from taxes on utilities, and landline phone and cable service — all of which are shrinking as home appliances become more efficient, people ditch landlines for cell phones and drop cable service, according to one of TaxWatch’s own reports. Calabro said the fund is safe for now, but suggests state officials find alternative revenues.
“We’re still allowing a lot of folks unlawfully not pay their sales tax on remote sales and it’s hurting a lot of brick and mortar retailers, particularly big-box retailers,” he said.
Calabro referred to the honor system Florida uses to collect sales tax on internet purchases. If someone buys something online from a company that doesn't call the Sunshine State home, he’s responsible for reporting owed sales tax to the state. Calabro wants to see that more strictly enforced and recommends more of that revenue go to the school construction fund.
One major online retailer has moved to Florida in recent years though. Amazon customers are now automatically charged sales tax after the online shopping giant set up warehouses in Florida.
Individual counties in Florida have attempted to solve the problem of shrinking funds by implementing a half-cent education sales tax, including St. Johns County where the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind resides.