April 04, 2014

FAMU leaders say Thrasher mischaracterized their position on FSU split

@tbtia

The Senate agreed to spend $13 million in state funding to help Florida State University begin creating its own engineering school separate from Florida A&M University largely based on the testimony of Sen. John Thrasher. The St. Augustine Republican is an FSU alum and is rumored to have an interest in becoming the university's next president. But he also one of the lions of the Legislature and his opinion carries lots of sway in Tallahassee.

But was Thrasher wrong when he said FAMU's new President Elmira Mangum had agreed to begin working with FSU's interim President Garnett Stokes to map out a plan for splitting the two schools' joint College of Engineering? A spokeswoman for Mangum says, "Yes."

"There was no such agreement," said Alonda Thomas, FAMU's communications director, in an email to the Times/Herald. "Dr. Mangum and Dr. Stokes agreed that they need to review the current amendment to understand its impact on FAMU if it should be approved. They agreed that the process is not collegial and that it is not the process in which collaboration is conducted."

Thomas said there was no agreement to begin drafting a "memorandum of understanding" about how the split would occur. Confronted with the conflicting information after the Senate adjourned Thursday night, Thrasher said his comments were based on what Stokes told him after she met with Mangum Thursday morning.

But there are more discrepancies. Larry Robinson, whose tenure as FAMU's interim president ended when Mangum took office Tuesday, said Thrasher also mischaracterized conversations he had with former FSU President Eric Barron. Barron's last day was Wednesday; he becomes president of Pennsylvania State University next month.

Robinson said he and Barron had informal conversations about the FAMU-FSU College of Engineering, but he never agreed that a split was the right course of action. Thrasher said during Thursday's debate that the two presidents had spoken about the plan and gave the impression they were on board.

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April 03, 2014

Negron dials back plan to limit community college bachelor degrees

@tbtia

Sen. Joe Negron has agreed to a compromise with the state's community colleges that will create a one-year moratorium on new bachelor's degrees instead of a new law that would have led to permanent restrictions.

Negron, the Senate's budget chief, had initially proposed a requirement that the Legislature approve new four-year degrees at state colleges instead of the Board of Education. He also removed $3.4 million in funding from the 24 colleges that currently offer bachelor's degrees and redistributed the money to the two pre-eminent universities, Florida State University and University of Florida.

That plan, which was never in the House version of the budget, is now off the table after Negron heard from college system leaders. The funding has been restored in the Senate's budget and Negron said the moratorium will give educators and lawmakers time to address so-called "mission creep" and duplication of programs at state colleges and universities.

"Right now, I think that the way the bacclaureate programs have exploded at our state colleges is not what the Legislature had intended," Negron, R-Stuart said.

Negron said he initial proposed the limits and reduced funding to reduce duplication between two- and four-year colleges. But he is also behind a separate budget proposal to split the joint FSU-FAMU College of Engineering and create two duplicate programs in the same city.

Senate approves funding to split FAMU-FSU engineering school

@tbtia

Amid conflicting reports about where Florida A&M University stands on the issue, the Senate agreed to fund a proposal to create a new, separate engineering school at Florida State University.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a FAMU alumna who spoke passionately against the measure, later said she would support the larger budget that contains the FSU funding because of promises made by Sen. John Thrasher during debate.

He reported that FAMU's brand new president -- Elmira Mangum has been on the job two days -- met with FSU interim president Garnett Stokes this morning and agreed to iron out a "memorandum of understanding" determining how the break would occur. The Legislature would abide by whatever that memo contains, Thrasher said.

Earlier, Joyner had opposed Thrasher's amendment to increase FSU's funding for a new engineering school from $10 million to $13 million. That amendment passed on a voice vote. Even with that money included in the budget, Joyner, a Tampa Democrat, voted "yes."

"I'm going to support this budget today, but I'll be here until the end, God willing," Joyner said. "If things work differently, then action in the future will be different. But today I'm going with it based on the word of two gentlemen whom I respect."

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March 24, 2014

Plenty of ‘turkey’ projects in state’s $75 billion budget

.@mikevansickler @kmcgrory

The drawings of a gleaming 1,000-foot-tall observation tower planned for downtown Miami are eye-catching.

Resembling a badly bent nail clipper, SkyRise Miami would be part event space, part amusement park with a flight-simulation ride and bungee jump.

Also eye-catching: $10 million.

That is what the Florida House is proposing to spend on the project next year, according to a budget proposal released last week.

Other big ticket items in the proposed budgets of either the Senate or the House: $15 million for the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast Connector, a bicycle and pedestrian path that links St. Petersburg and Titusville; $4 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium; and $1 million for infrastructure in the Miami Design District.

During the Great Recession, budget deficits and tea party protests meant pork barrel spending gave way to austerity. But now it’s an election year and legislators are looking at a projected $1.2 billion surplus in what is expected to be a total budget of around $75 billion. So lawmakers are scrambling to haul in projects to benefit their districts.

“I must have 30 pounds of member requests, stacks and stacks of them, in my office,” said Ed Hooper, the Clearwater Republican who chairs the House appropriations committee on transportation and economic development. “It was easier to do budgets when we had no money. Now that there’s this perceived surplus, there’s four to five years of pent-up demand.”

Read more here.

March 19, 2014

Senate education spending plan gets bi-partisan love

Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Bill Galvano unveiled his plan for funding education Tuesday.

Galvano wants to spend about $6,955 per student, an increase of 2.58 percent over last year.

His proposed budget increases the spending on public schools by $651 million. It sets aside $40 million for digital learning initiative, equipment and training; and $30 million to encourage schools to develop industry certification programs.

The proposal also pumps $100 million in new funds into the State University System performance funding, and $15 million in new funds into performance funding for the college system. And it increases the funding for Bright Futures Scholarships by $25 million, or 9.4 percent over last year.

The education budgets being considered in the Senate and the House are similar, though the lower chamber's proposal adds about $60 million more into the K-12 budget. The Senate has more of a focus on capital spending, Galvano said.

Galvano's preliminary plan got some bi-partisan love Wednesday.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, called the pitch a "historic education budget."

"It reflects a growing understanding that education truly is our number one priority," he said.

Said Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach: "What a difference money makes."

Democrats also praised the proposal.

"It is nice to have money," Sen. Maria Lorts Sachs, D-Delray Beach, told Galvano. "You have allocated it in a very fair way."

January 29, 2014

Scott and Crist use budget rollout to snipe at each others' records

Florida’s race for governor hit full throttle Wednesday as Gov. Rick Scott seeded his budget announcement with attacks on his opponent and predecessor Charlie Crist, while the former governor used the event to bash Scott’s policies and ethics.

Speaking to reporters and editors at the annual legislative planning meeting sponsored by the Associated Press, Crist lashed into Scott’s past at a fraud-riddled hospital chain, blasted his previous budgets for cutting education spending and accused him of reversing course because an election is approaching.

“He’s trying to make up for it in an election year transformation, but the people of Florida are smart,” Crist said. “I don’t believe Florida is going to get fooled a second time.”

It was an unusual ending to what is a traditionally tame budget rollout as the two men compete in what is expected to be one of the most bitterly fought races for governor in decades.

Scott was the first to start swinging. The Republican governor announced his $74.2 billion budget plan early Wednesday, then declared that his fiscal record “represents a sharp contrast to the four budgets before we took office.” Story here. 

January 28, 2014

Following the money in Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposals

@tbtia

Gov. Rick Scott has received positive headlines for the better part of two weeks as he unveils bits and pieces of his proposed 2014-2015 budget. He is focusing on the good news: roughly a dozen tax breaks and spending increases.

TMscottbudgetHe wants to cut vehicle tag fees and increase workforce training. He hopes to give families a tax break on back-to-school shopping, businesses a break on rent taxes and worried homeowners a break when preparing for hurricane season. Scott's proposal will also include money to restore the Everglades and Florida's springs.

But there is a catch.

The Times/Herald compiled all of Scott's new spending in the chart (click on the pic for a larger image), using press releases from his office and media reports. We included only the new spending that would require additional budget dollars, except for education because that wasn't specified.

In total, Scott has proposed about $1.4 billion in new spending. You may recall that state analysts have predicted an $850 million budget surplus.

That means if the governor wants to boost spending in the way he has proposed, he will have to cut around $500 million in other areas of the state budget.

Scott has already announced that he wants agencies to reduce their budgets by $100 million. Our analysis shows that the number will be significantly higher, unless the governor is looking outside state coffers to fund his new initiatives.

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January 13, 2014

Report: Florida lags farther than most states in restoring its pre-recession fiscal strength

More than four years after the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the financial condition of Florida and most other states is improving but it remains far from where it was on several key measures of fiscal health, according to a new report by The Pew Charitable Trusts' Fiscal 50: State Trends and Analysis.

The report examined tax revenues, employment rates, debt ratios and reserve funds and compared the fiscal health of each of the states. Florida fared worse when it comes to tax collections and employment but better in terms of reserves and debt.

According to the report, Florida collects 21 percent less in tax revenue’s as of June 20, 2013 than it did during its pre-recession peak, giving the state significantly less spending power than it had seven years ago. Only Alaska and Wyoming are further behind in restoring their tax collections to pre-recession levels, the report found, while Arkansas saw the least dip in its tax collections of any other state, followed by Illinois and Minnesota.

Florida's employment rate is also among the worst in the nation, the report found. The report measured the number of people ages 25-54 in the work force before the recession and again in 2013. It found that the 2007 employment rate in Florida was 81.1 percent and, in 2013, it was 74.8 percent, the third largest drop of any other state, behind only Nevada and New Mexico. Nationally, the average drop was 4.1 percentage points.

Meanwhile, Florida's reliance on federal dollars as a share of state personal income continues -- like other states -- to be the highest in history. Federal funds have largely driven growth in total state spending over the past two decades and, despite efforts by Gov. Rick Scott to routinely reject federal funds for numerous spending needs, that pattern is not changed.

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May 14, 2013

State announces new initiatives to crack down on fraud

Fighting fraud that costs the state millions of dollars and impacts poor residents who rely on public assistance payments,The Department of Children & Families on Tuesday announced a new system to crack down on cheaters.

“Florida has the highest per capita rate of reported identity theft nationally,” with more than 70 percent of ID theft tied to government-related services, said DCF Secretary David Wilkins, speaking at a a press conference with Deputy CFO Jay Etheridge and Tallahassee Police Chief  Dennis Jones.

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April 12, 2013

Explaining Florida's budget surplus

Florida lawmakers are doing something they haven't done in years: adding money to state programs.

The recession sent the state into multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls that led to big cuts in education and state government payrolls.

But this year, lawmakers have money to play with. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a budget of more than $74 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July. That's about a $4-billion increase in spending over the current year.

So where did the extra money come from?

In his State of the State address last month, Scott credited two years of cutting taxes and red tape so businesses could grow.

“Because we made the hard choices over the last two years, we are able to make the smart choices now to keep our economy growing,” Scott said. “We have a projected budget surplus for the first time in six years.”

As the House budget chief, Lakeland Republican Rep. Seth McKeel will be a key player in crafting the state budget. He began his tenure as a lawmaker in 2006, as the economy was starting its descent.

“We have had to make unfortunate reductions over the last five years in important areas like transportation, education and public safety when we didn't have enough funds,” McKeel said. “We actually had some scenarios where we had to make up (for) budget deficits.”

Of course, the reasons for this turnaround in the state's finances vary depending on who you ask.

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