Our pocketbooks are hurting in Florida where we have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn. This has occurred in part as a result of declines in the construction and housing markets as well as the tourism industry. Unemployment peaked at more than 11 percent last year, and remains higher than the national average, making economic issues key.
Florida’s legislature has a constitutional requirement to balance the state budget. As a State Representative I worked to balance Florida’s budget eight times. As chairman of the House Full Appropriations Committee, and the Joint Legislative Budget Commission during my final term in 2009 and 2010, we overcame $9 billion in deficits during those two years.
Unfortunately, despite efforts by my colleagues and myself in the form of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the federal government does not have a similar mandate placed upon it. Our national debt is at $16 trillion and growing, and our annual deficits continue to stand at $1 trillion or more.
We have taken steps in the right direction. Every appropriations bill we have approved has included cuts in spending, and we have been able to implement permanent spending caps to ensure that future Congresses do not repeat the mistakes of the past. However, we are not close to a solution. The Democratic-controlled Senate has not passed a budget since April of 2009, and the government has been funded through a series of temporary Continuing Resolutions. This is no way to run a government.
Hand in hand with the uncertainty that comes with the lack of a budget, is the uncertainty created by an unstable tax and regulatory environment. I have spoken to business owners in South Florida as well as others throughout the state who echo the same refrain; they are hesitating to hire new employees or invest in new projects because they do not know what the future will hold—whether they will have to pay new penalties or fees, or if they will be negatively impacted by growing their business.
The news is not all bad though. One such positive effort that provided increased potential business opportunities for American companies, and specifically companies in Florida, was the approval of the Free Trade Agreements with Colombia and Panama. The trade deals stand to create 250,000 jobs, many of them in our state. As the gateway to Latin America, Florida is uniquely positioned when it comes to trade. Friendlier business practices in this country would certainly lead to friendlier relations with our allies and prospective business partners abroad, ultimately creating jobs on our shores.
Just as Florida’s geographical location impacts our state’s perspective on trade, Floridians have a distinct view on the issue of immigration. Florida is home to approximately 700,000 undocumented immigrants, according to a 2009 report by the Department of Homeland Security. There is no easy solution to the question of immigration reform, yet people expect results from their elected representatives on the tough issues of the day. We must begin by working toward solutions where broad support exists, including helping young people who arrived in this country illegally at a young age through no fault of their own and have a desire to get a college education or serve in the Armed Forces.
It is also important to recognize that Florida has a large population of retirees. Many of whom have paid into a system to guarantee benefits when they reach retirement age. Florida’s seniors expect the government to keep these promises, but these entitlements are in bad need of reform. Medicare and Social Security should be saved for future generation. However, this needs to be a thoughtful and deliberative process to ensure the long-term viability of these entitlement programs by rethinking how these programs work and not maintaining the status quo for the sake of maintaining the status quo, or making drastic cuts to the programs.
In November Floridians are not only looking for an end to the business-as-usual gridlock in Washington, but for practical solutions that will move our state and our country in the right direction and put the economy back on a track to prosperity.
Rivera, a Republican, represents Florida's 25th Congressional District. He serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Natural Resources Committee.