February 10, 2016

House budget panel endorses limits on school construction spending

@ByKristenMClark

With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

More here.

February 03, 2016

Senator: Teacher bonus program needs to be vetted before funding assured

@ByKristenMClark

The chairman of the Florida Senate's education budget committee said Wednesday there's a very good reason the chamber didn't include funding toward continuing the new "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program in its proposed budget for 2016-17: The program hasn't been vetted by the chamber yet.

A bill to continue the program, currently in its inaugural year, is moving slowly through the Senate, but it's far from guaranteed to pass

"It’s my sense we need to fully vet the policy; we didn’t have a chance to do that last year," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

The House debated the program last spring, and first-year funding of $44 million was ultimately added to the final state budget during the special session over the summer.

The controversial program offers bonuses to teachers who are rated “highly effective” and score in the top 20th percentile on their SAT or ACT exams when they took them in high school. First-year teachers are eligible simply based on their exam scores.

It is a priority item for the Florida House and the brainchild of House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Legislation to renew it is ready for a full House vote.

Fresen describes it as both a recruitment and a retention tool, but critics say there's no evidence of a correlation between teachers' old high school test scores and student performance. The state's largest teachers' union also argues it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Acknowledging the "confusion" and "frustration" teachers have expressed, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, on Wednesday asked Gaetz for an update on the Senate's proposed funding for the program -- which was notably absent from its initial budget plan released last week.

"We can have full a debate on 'Best & Brightest' and any changes that might be necessary to the program, prior to making any kind of commitment on behalf of the Senate for funding," Gaetz said.

The House budget includes $45 million for the teacher bonuses, $1 million more than this year. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget plan recommended $39 million toward it.

Two bills could be vehicles for the "Best & Brightest" program in the Senate: a standalone bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, or another by Gaetz, which deals with performance funding and is ready for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee, should the panel take it up.

Flores on Wednesday joined other Republican and Democratic senators who have previously expressed hesitation about the bonus program's eligibility requirements.

She questioned rewarding teachers based on the their own SAT scores, "something that's outdated, and seen as an input rather than an output, as it relates to student success." She said she would prefer to base bonuses on whether teachers have national board certifications -- which the Legislature used to do.

"I think that would be a better route for us to take," Flores said.

Gaetz said the Legislature stopped funding that program during the economic downturn several years ago, in part, as a cost-cutting measure because there was no evidence proving "a cause-and-effect relationship" between teachers' certifications and student performance -- a complaint of the "Best & Brightest" program today.

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Scott_cornhole

@ByKristenMClark

The governor plays cornhole at the Florida Capitol, lawmakers huddle for initial budget talks and controversial gun bills get a floor vote in the House. Here's what we're watching today:

* Proposed plans for the 2016-17 budget will go before the House's and Senate's full appropriations committees. Both chambers have scheduled daylong meetings to debate and revise their respective proposals, which were released Friday. (House Appropriations, 8 a.m., 212 Knott Building. Senate Appropriations, 9 a.m. 412 Knott Buiding)

* Gov. Rick Scott is elevating his efforts to persuade the Legislature to support his call for a $1 billion tax cut and $250 million in business incentives. In a rare move, he's hosting a rally at the Florida Capitol, starting at 11 a.m. It will feature "leaders from around the state" and a specialty cornhole set branded with Scott's slogan of "1st For Jobs."

* The House Finance and Tax Committee, led by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, plans to formally unveil its "bipartisan" tax cut package -- and "much anticipated" hashtag -- during a press conference after the committee's meeting, set for 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

* More than 100 employees of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa plan to visit with House and Senate members to help draw support for a $3 billion gaming compact, which the Seminole tribe and the governor signed but which the Legislature is hesitant to back.

* The House convenes for session at 3. After heated debate yesterday evening, the chamber is expected to pass two controversial gun bills and consider a slew of other legislation on the table.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott's office

January 29, 2016

Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars

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@ByKristenMClark

The state House is proposing to give Florida's 650 charter schools almost twice as much of the state's sought-after school construction dollars than traditional public schools next year.

But over in the Senate, members wants to give them zilch, while traditional public schools would still get $50 million.

At least on paper.

The figures come from each chamber's proposed budget bills, released today. But House and Senate education budget committee chairmen caution not to read too much into the proposed line-items.

It's still relatively early in the legislative budget process, and both Senate Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and House Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said this week that they hadn't finalized figures for fixed capital outlay dollars yet nor determined how much exactly should go to either traditional public schools or charter schools.

Fresen said in a text message today that the specifics will be hashed out later when House and Senate leaders eventually meet in conference committee to settle on the final state budget.

"Those are block numbers," he said, referring to the fixed capital outlay line-items. "It doesn't really mean much right now."

But the proposed figures offer insight into each chamber's priorities and potential bargaining chips going forward.

Continue reading "Budget plans reveal Florida House, Senate far apart in school construction dollars" »

Florida House wants $601M increase to K-12 education funding

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is also seeking a big boost in K-12 education funding next year, proposing an extra $601 million more for schools.

Both the House and Senate are seeking to increase K-12 education funding even more so than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

Scott called for $500 million in extra funding. The House would increase that by another $100 million, while the Senate has pitched an extra $650 million, or $150 million more than Scott's plan.

But the the point of contention continues to be how much of those new dollars will come from the state versus growing revenues from local property taxes.

Some Republicans in both chambers argue increasing the required local effort constitutes a "tax increase," and they're not on board with that -- especially in the Senate.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, said his panel would consider several alternatives early next week, including replacing local property taxes with state tax revenue. More here.

Some lawmakers would prefer scaling back the local dollars and counting that toward the $1 billion in tax cuts that Scott wants, or even just simply acknowledging that the increase in education spending would cut into the overall tax cuts.

"If we cut taxes here a billion dollars and raise them $500 million at home, we need to call it a $500 million tax decrease, not $1 billion," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House education budget committee.

That chamber's plan uses Scott's method of predominantly relying on local property tax revenue -- which House Education Budget Committee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describes as an "adjustment with no actual increase in the millage."

But even if the tax rate doesn't change, property owners' tax bills will likely still be higher because of improved property values statewide.

Fresen said the proportion of local taxes toward education declined from 2009 to 2013, "so during a time of declining tax rolls, it was essentially a tax cut," so he said this adjusts for that now that property values are rebounding.

Fresen rolled out the House proposal during a swift discussion on Thursday. The chamber unveiled its full budget plan this morning.

For K-12 education, the House recommends a total budget of $20.3 billion, with $7,232 in per-pupil funding. The current level is about $7,107 per student this year.

To fund the House's plan of an extra $601 million in K-12 education, about 78 percent of that -- or $505 million -- would come from required and discretionary local dollars. About $95 million would come from the state.

By comparison, Scott's budget proposal called for a $20.2 billion education budget with funding of $7,221 per student. He wants to increase K-12 dollars by $507.3 million in 2016-17. But only about $80 million of that would be extra state aide, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay

Meanwhile, the Senate's budget plan is about $50 million more than the House's and $150 million more than the governor's. It's roughly $20.3 billion, with $7,249 in per-pupil funding.

To fund its $650 million increase -- for now -- the Senate has penciled in similar proportions of local and state funding as the House and governor, but Gaetz expects that to change given his and his colleagues' discontent with that calculation.

December 04, 2015

Senate budget panel preparing alternative ways to boost dollars for K-12 education

Don gaetz

@ByKristenMClark

The chairman in charge of crafting the Senate's education budget proposal signaled again Thursday that Florida Gov. Rick Scott's plan to increase K-12 education dollars primarily off the checkbooks of local taxpayers isn't going to fly.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, is preparing his fellow senators to consider other options including ones that would require a greater share of state support -- something that's not likely to be met well by Scott, who's also seeking a $1 billion tax cut in 2016-17.

The initial presentation by Gaetz came as no surprise. The former school board member and elected school superintendent in Okaloosa County has been critical of Scott's intentions dating back to September, when Department of Education officials first broached the idea with their legislative funding request.

Scott's proposed budget, released last week, goes farther than that original ask. As one of his core priorities, along with the tax cuts, Scott aims to boost funding for K-12 schools by more than $500 million.

But only $80 million of that is extra state dollars, while $427.3 million -- or 85 percent -- would come out of property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay, revenue that’s increasing thanks to rebounding property values.

Continue reading "Senate budget panel preparing alternative ways to boost dollars for K-12 education" »

November 23, 2015

Gov. Scott wants more staffing cuts in health, environment

@MichaelAuslen

For the fifth year in a row, Gov. Rick Scott is asking for big job cuts to state agencies responsible for health care and the environment.

In his budget priorities released Monday, Scott asks the Legislature to eliminate a net of 718 jobs in the Department of Health and 152 in the Department of Environmental Protection.

All told, if the Legislature honors Scott’s request, the Department of Health will have shrunk by a fifth — more than 3,400 jobs eliminated — since Scott’s first budget in 2011-2012. More than 1,500 of those are in the last two years.

By and large, the cuts are expected to be for positions funded by the Legislature that have not been filled by Scott's agencies. About 200 jobs are expected to be connected to the transitioning of a health care plan for kids to be run by private insurers. Many of those could be filled by state workers who could be reassigned into other open jobs.

That means few workers are expected to lose their jobs. But it also means jobs for which the Legislature has set aside money are not being filled.

Scott is asking to eliminate more than 500 jobs in county health departments, which are charged with serving low-income people across the state. Last year, the governor asked for 758 health department jobs to be cut. Lawmakers got rid of an additional 55.

Last year, Scott’s proposal asked to cut funding for nutritionists who advise poor families, health counselors and family support workers, among other jobs in clinics across the state.

A list of which specific positions are expected to be eliminated has not been made available.

In the Department of Environmental Protection, most of the job cuts are likely to be empty positions, as well. Under the governor’s plan, most of them come from the state parks.

It is important to note that the governor’s recommended budget is only a suggestion. State lawmakers negotiate the nearly $80 billion state budget, and Scott has the power to veto items.

Still, lawmakers often make changes prioritized by the governor and his agencies. Scott this year asked each state agency to identify 5 percent of their jobs that could be cut.

Continue reading "Gov. Scott wants more staffing cuts in health, environment" »

October 30, 2015

Public safety agencies want more funding for workers, salaries, infrastructure

VickieharrisDJJ

@ByKristenMClark

Representatives from 11 state agencies and organizations charged with ensuring public safety in Florida seem to agree: Efficient government is good, but after years of cuts, many of their agencies are strapped for cash in critical areas.

There's either too few employees or they're too underpaid, sometimes both. And aging facilities, vehicles and thousands of state-owned buildings across Florida are in need of repair, renovation or replacement.

The agency's budget requests -- including prioritized requests for more funding -- were outlined during presentations this morning to Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget and policy staff. (Several sessions of budget presentations are being held today on other topic areas, including general government and education.)

Parity in pay was a common explanation for why several agencies, ranging from the Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to associations representing state attorneys and public offenders, are asking for extra money in the 2016-17 state budget toward employees' salaries.

Continue reading "Public safety agencies want more funding for workers, salaries, infrastructure" »

January 23, 2015

Scott's proposed budget will include more money for people with disabilities

Another day, another budget recommendation.

Gov. Rick Scott on Friday unveiled new additional of his budget proposal, including $8 million to enroll all individuals "with critical needs" from the waiting list to the Developmental Disabilities Medicaid Waiver Program.

"I am pleased to announce that for the second year in a row, Floridians will be removed from the critical needs waiting list with our proposed funding," he said in a statement.

Scott is also prioritizing the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program. The program provides scholarships worth $10,000 or more to children with profound special needs. The money can be applied toward private school tuition, tutoring, educational materials and therapy.

The governor's proposed budget will include an additional $5 million for the program.

"Every individual should have the opportunity to get a great job and education regardless of the challenges they may face, and that is why we are making this funding a priority," Scott said.

He is expected to release his entire budget proposal next week.

June 02, 2014

Gov. Rick Scott expected to sign budget today

@stevebousquet

Florida Gov. Rick Scott today is expected to sign into law the largest budget in state history, a $77 billion spending plan crafted to enhance his re-election prospects, as well as the Republican legislators who crafted it.

For the first time in six years, Scott and legislators had more money to spend because of the steady improvement in Florida’s economy.

Lawmakers spent more money on child welfare and to reduce water pollution, but they also packed the budget with hundreds of line-item spending projects for museums, parks, water systems, even a gun range for police training.

The budget includes $18.9 billion for public schools, or $6,949 per pupil, an increase of $176 per pupil. That’s the most money ever, but still falls $177 per-student below the record of $7,126 per student in 2007-2008, the first year Charlie Crist was governor.

Crist had called on Scott to veto hundreds of millions of dollars in pet projects for lawmakers’ districts and plow all of it into the public schools.

Watch for news here.