The Tampa Tribune presented a misleading narrative on state borrowing in order to smear Florida’s Republican Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Jeff Atwater and provide cover for prominent Democratic politician and former state CFO Alex Sink.
The Tribune published an article Wednesday claiming the Florida Republican Party engaged in hypocrisy when it sent out a press release this week “blasting Alex Sink for voting as a Cabinet member in 2008 to borrow money for school improvements.” The Tribune singled out Atwater in the title of the article, “GOP bashes Sink over decisions by Republicans – including Atwater?”
The article correctly noted the Republican press release criticized Sink for voting to issue two bonds in 2008 totaling $1.2 billion. The article also correctly noted the Florida Cabinet, consisting of the governor, attorney general, chief financial officer, and agriculture commissioner, has sole decision-making power on whether to issue bonds – effectively borrowing money – to finance state spending programs.
In March of 2008, the Cabinet voted to issue bonds totaling $586 million to construct government buildings. Gov. Charlie Crist, Attorney General Bill McCollum, CFO Alex Sink, and Agriculture Commissioner Charles Bronson voted unanimously to authorize the bonds.
The Cabinet voted in June of 2008 to issue bonds totaling another $625 million for similar building projects. Crist and Sink were the only two Cabinet officials attending the meeting, and both voted to authorize the bonds.
Jeff Atwater was not a Cabinet officeholder in 2008. He was a member of the Florida Senate in 2008. The Senate plays no role in decisions to issue bonds.
The Tribune claimed, “Starting in 2008, when Atwater became state Senate president, he would have had substantial influence over the shape of the state budget.” Implicitly, the Tribune argued Atwater could have exercised his power as Senate president enact a leaner 2008 budget such that the Cabinet would not have to issue bonds to fund desired government building programs. The Tribune, however, failed to mention the legislature crafted the 2008 budget in 2007, before Atwater became president. As Senate president in 2008, Atwater could not unilaterally rewrite a budget the legislature passed a year earlier.
Atwater did, however, exercise his authority as Senate president in 2008 to make substantial cuts in 2008 and 2009 government expenditures. As the Sun-Sentinel pointed out in March 2008, within two months of Atwater becoming Senate president, the Senate slashed $500 million in spending for the duration of 2008 and similarly began paring 2009 expenditures.
To be fair, three Republican Cabinet members voted for the March 2008 bond and one Republican Cabinet member voted with Alex Sink for the June 2008 bond. However, the one Republican who voted with Sink in June was Charlie Crist. During Crist’s term as governor, Democrats often referred to Crist as “one of the best Democratic governors Florida has ever had,” and Crist has since become a Democrat. The two other Republicans who voted for the March 2008 bond are no longer active Republican political candidates, largely because they were perceived as politically left of the GOP’s center of gravity. McCollum, who pundits assumed would be elected governor in 2010, lost the 2010 Republican gubernatorial primary to conservative favorite Rick Scott. Bronson is no longer involved in state politics.
Since the 2008 Cabinet bond votes, one Republican became a Democrat, another Republican lost a primary to a conservative challenger, and the other Republican has dropped out of politics. Jeff Atwater played no role in the bond decisions, and affirmatively used his power as Senate president to slash state spending. Since Atwater became Florida CFO in 2010, Florida has reversed its perennial deficit borrowing and posted consecutive budget surpluses.
For publishing an article titled, “GOP bashes Sink over decisions by Republicans – including Atwater?” the Tampa Tribune has some explaining to do.