By REID TUCKER
Good barbecue makes everything taste better, even the sometimes unpalatable realities associated with cutting the pork out of federal spending.
At least that was the hope of the District 5 State Representative Brad Drake, whose staff organized a barbecue luncheon for the purpose of hosting U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller. The Republican congressman of District 1 met with a crowd of about 30 individuals representing various local government agencies as well as private citizens at a residence just outside DeFuniak Springs on Thursday, Feb. 24. While Miller fielded questions on myriad topics from national health care to local infrastructure enhancements, the main topic of discussion was the state of the ongoing battle against the nation’s fiscal woes.
Miller, between sips of iced tea, told the crowds of the continuing resolution passed a couple of weeks ago in the GOP-controlled House to cut the federal budget by $60 billion for the remainder of the year, or roughly $285 million per day (an overall deficit reduction of 6.9 percent). Miller said this resolution, which would be good through the first part of September, amounts to the biggest spending cut in the history of the federal government. However, he said people shouldn’t expect that to come without some bad aftertastes, as Florida will feel the crunch too, seeing as the state’s budget has a $3.5 billion – $4 billion shortfall with no government stimulus dollars coming to take up the slack.
“We’ve got to make some decisions that are not going to be very nice,” Miller said. “They’re going to be painful for everybody when it’s all said and done. We’re all going to feel the squeeze.”
That said, Miller told the crowd the best way to stimulate the economy, which would in turn boost revenues, is to loosen the economic constraints on the private sector. He criticized the government’s insistence on issuing regulations instead of proposing legislation as a primary culprit, and used the numerical water quality standards proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Florida’s waters as an example. Miller said these standards will not only harm the state’s industry and agriculture but will cost the state billions.
“[The EPA] would like Florida to go back to pre-dinosaur times and have our waters be cleaner than they have been since God made the earth,” Miller said. “You just can’t do it. To get where they want us to go the financial cost is astronomical.”
In addition to deficit woes, Miller made mention of the perhaps greater problem posed by the national debt. He said that, even if the gap on the $1.4 trillion deficit was closed there would still be the issue of $14 trillion in debt. That’s a gap that can’t be closed through discretionary spending alone, as only 17 percent of the federal budget is discretionary, Miller said.
Social Security and Medicare are of course the elephants in the room, and Miller didn’t shy away from addressing the dire straits the healthcare system finds itself in.
“If we don’t talk about it now, [Social Security] will not be here in a few years,” he said. “For the Obama administration to make the statement that Social Security is just fine the way it is not totally truthful. You can use smoke and mirrors any way to make your numbers look like they’re going to be OK. Social Security is going to run out of money and it’s going to run out of money sooner rather than later.”
Miller took suggestions, comments and questions from several members of the crowd, but the biggest item was expansion of U.S. 331 into a four-lane highway from DeFuniak Springs in the north to Santa Rosa Beach in the south. County Commissioner Sarah Comander told the congressman about the importance of making sure Walton County’s concerns were “at the top of the list” when it came time for the U.S. Department of Transportation six-year transportation bill come before the U.S. legislators. The fiscal year 2012 budget recently proposed by President Barack Obama provides for a 48-percent increase to funding ($336 billion over the next six years) for road and bridge construction and improvements, and Comander said Walton County deserves to be in the fore when it comes to receiving some of those funds.
“I don’t think there’s a person sitting here that won’t tell you that [U.S. 331] is a major concern of almost everyone in Walton County,” she said. “We want to be in that bill. That’s probably going to be the last big chance in a while to get money for roads here in Walton County.”
Miller said a congressional ban on earmarks would preclude Walton County from getting in special treatment, indicating the best way to see results would be for the county to place its efforts on the state DOT rather than on its counterpart in Washington. He cited Escambia County’s success in getting major highways four-laned all the way south from its border with Alabama as proof of what can happen when local governments work together with the DOTs of Florida and neighboring states.
“What your group has done has continued to keep that issue on the front burner, and that’s what’s important,” Miller said. “It’s going to be difficult to steer without earmarking it, but I still feel like we can do it. The focus needs to be on Tallahassee.”