TOPICS > Economy

Tracking Tax Dollar Spending in Florida

April 14, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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In our continuing Spotlight City series about how people view the government, Judy Woodruff reports from Tampa on tracking Florida's federal tax dollars and the debate about how they are spent.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: It’s tax week here in Florida and around the country. We have spent the last week looking at just where federal tax dollars go in the Sunshine State and the debate over how they’re spent.

CINDY CAREY: I’m angry. I’m angry with what’s happening in Washington. We are headed for socialism and fascism, Marxism.

JUDITH CRISTINI: We the people are losing control of our government and the government spending, and that concerns me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With the federal government on track to pay out $1.5 trillion more this year than it takes in, and with growing citizen anger over spending on bank bailouts and health care reform, it’s easy to forget all the things the government pays for that don’t get as much attention.

Since a healthy share of the anger is emanating from Florida, we figured it’s as good a place as any to look at what those things are. In 2008, Washington funneled nearly $150 billion to addresses in Florida in the form of payments to big entities like state and city governments, and checks to individuals for Social Security, Medicare and retirement benefits.

Of all that money, some ends up with Anna Spinella and her husband, Joe. At 77, Joe has Alzheimer’s and other health problems, while Anna, who is 76, is legally blind. Through a combination of programs funded by the Older Americans Act and the Department of Veterans Affairs, Anna and Joe get meals delivered to them almost daily, as well as 10 hours a week of home-based care.

That care includes giving Joe a shower and a shave three times a week, plus feeding him breakfast, cleaning up in the kitchen, doing the laundry and other chores.

ANNA SPINELLA, resident of Tampa, Fla.: I think everybody should know that ordinary people are being blessed by these different things. I think, if you aren’t — if you aren’t there yourself, your neighbor probably is, or a person down the street, or your mother. Or somebody else in your family that lives in another town is being blessed by the different programs that are there that you pay taxes for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anna says the help she and Joe receive has enabled them to age in their home, instead of a nursing home.

ANNA SPINELLA: I didn’t count on the fact that I was 76 and not as strong as I used to be. I didn’t count on the fact that he wouldn’t be able to turn over, that it would be literally impossible for me to turn him over, to pull him up in the bed. It’s just — and it — it means — it means everything to me. It just means everything to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another, much larger recipient of federal money in the Tampa area is the Hillsborough County School District. Florida received $5.7 billion from the federal government for education last year, $278 million of it directed to this county.

At schools like West Tampa Elementary, that money has provided students with free or low-cost meals, paid for reading and writing coaches, and bought laptops for a portable computer lab.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia says federal dollars have also kept teachers in the classroom.

MARYELLEN ELIA, superintendent, Hillsborough County Public Schools: We are over 10 percent unemployment in this county. And, in this school district, we’re the largest employer in this county, and we have not laid off one person. And the reality is that the funding that we receive from the federal government has really been very instrumental in allowing us to do that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the schools, the next largest employer in Hillsborough County is MacDill Air Force Base, one of 17 military installations in the state of Florida. It has an operating budget of $284 million, and pays out $1 billion in salaries to more than 12,000 employees.

Colonel Larry Martin, commander of the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill, says the base leaves a major economic footprint in the community.

COL. LARRY MARTIN, U.S. air force: We have an entire range of jobs, anything that you might have to run a small city, from very highly technical jobs involved with the Air Force in running the high-tech equipment that we have with our communications equipment that’s on the base, to on — to people that cut the grass, keep the — keep the building cleans — keep the buildings clean and run them, to the highest strategic thinking that goes on with the leaders of Central Command and Special Operations Command.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While military spending is discretionary, not locked in by law, it is often viewed as sacrosanct. And, once defense is added to congressionally mandated spending programs, such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans’ benefits, and interest on the debt, that leaves just one-sixth of the U.S. budget available for easy axing.

Unless there’s an unexpected spike in tax revenues, chopping the federal deficit will mean having to cut back on things people like and depend on, says Maya MacGuineas director of the fiscal policy program at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan Washington think tank.

MAYA MACGUINEAS, New America Foundation: When we do get down to a realistic discussion of trimming back the budget, people are going to realize we’re not going to be able to do it in a way that — that you don’t feel.

It means going through that budget and pulling back things like spending on energy or money that goes to education, basic research and development, international aid, transportation, all sorts of things that people like, and you would see a result, sort of a more crumbling infrastructure, less basic research and development if you trimmed those things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, many Tampa residents still want to see the federal government reined in.

MARK NONNENBERG, resident of Tampa, Fla.: They own banks. They own motor — automobile companies. And I think that’s a — that’s a problem that we’re facing right now and in trying to be a republic, which is what we are, vs. being a — run by a socialist group.

CAROLYN CLOSSON, resident of Tampa, Fla.: People that really need help, we want to help. But just giving away money just because the poor wants to be living the same way as people that are working hard, to me, I don’t think that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor, who represents Florida’s 11th District, which includes Tampa, says many of her constituents appreciate government stepping in when times are tough.

REP. KATHY CASTOR D-Fla.: Frankly, folks are more concerned about their jobs, affordable health car, good education for their — for their families, for their children. They understand the important role that government has to play, especially in a recessionary time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Not everyone sees it that way.

Tim Curtis is a member of the Tampa Tea Party and organizer of the Tampa 9-12 Project.

TIM CURTIS, Tampa 9-12 Project: My position is that there is absolutely a role and a function for the federal government: interstate highways, provide for the common defense. There are those things that are clearly enumerated in the Constitution that everyone in this country ought to have to contribute to.

Beyond that, there shouldn’t be any federal funding for — and you can go right down the line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Probably the hottest current debate in Tampa over government spending has to do with trains, two of them in fact, one high-speed, the other urban light-rail. Both of these projects have a price tag in the billions, so the argument is over cost and over whether government should be in the business of telling people how to get around.

Florida’s plans for a high-speed rail system date back a quarter-century. The talk turned into reality this past January, when the Obama administration awarded the state $1.25 billion for an 84-mile line that would stretch from Tampa to Orlando, running along the median of Interstate 4.

Ed Braddy is executive director of the American Dream Coalition, a group that defends automobile use and homeownership. Braddy argues that rail projects come in, on average, 40 percent over-budget. He says, if that happens in Florida, it will be taxpayers who pick up the tab.

ED BRADDY, executive director, American Dream Coalition: If history is any guide — and I hope policy-makers take it into consideration — it’s going to come in at a lot more expensive than that. And who is going to pay?

Why should a struggling middle-class family or a lower-middle-class family all the way up in the Panhandle pay for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando? Who benefits from that?

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of people, says Tampa’s Democratic mayor, Pam Iorio. A recent study by “Forbes” rated the Tampa-Saint Petersburg region the worst in the country for commuters. Rail advocates say the system will help to alleviate traffic congestion by giving people more transit options, and spur economic growth at the same time.

PAM IORIO, D, mayor Of Tampa, Fla.: If we can make this investment, we will produce more and better jobs, and it will do so much in the way of mobility choices, which is so important, not only to our young population, but to the ever-increasing older population, as people lose the ability to drive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Across Tampa Bay, the Republican mayor of Saint Petersburg, Bill Foster, also supports high-speed rail, but only if his city is included in the plans.

BILL FOSTER ,R, mayor of Saint Petersburg, Fla.: I will say, if it stops in Tampa, then it’s a terrible waste of money, and I will fight like the dickens to make sure it never happens. But if it includes the Saint Pete component, the ability to move people at high speeds efficiently, I think, is important for our — for our region.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The other transit debate in the Tampa area is over a proposed 1 cent increase in Hillsborough County’s sales tax to help fund a light-rail system. Republican County Commissioner Jim Norman says it’s an expense voters simply cannot afford.

JIM NORMAN, R, Hillsborough County commissioner: It — it could not be a worse time for a 1 penny sales tax. Government people that even anticipate wanting to put this penny on, they don’t get it. They are out of touch. They do not understand the hardships our community is facing right now. They’re trying to survive. They’re trying to actually work two and three jobs. To ask them to pay more on anything is the wrong thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Mayor Iorio, who has made light-rail a top priority of her final year in office, sees it differently.

PAM IORIO: You have to look not only at what the proposal is, but what happens if we don’t move forward with this. What kind of community will we have 30 years from now? This gives people mobility choices. Does it cost? Of course it costs. Everything worth having in our country has cost something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With federal income taxes due tomorrow, that cost and how it’s paid for will be on the minds of millions of Americans.