February 11, 2016

Florida Senate's reforms on school districts' capital spending differs on charter school aid

@ByKristenMClark

Responding to a controversial plan fast-tracked by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, a Florida Senate subcommittee is proposing its own reforms to how much school districts can spend on capital costs and what access the state's 650 charter schools should have to state and local dollars.

But the Senate's ideas don't go so far in charter schools' favor as those included in Fresen's proposal, which was advanced by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Rather, the counter-proposal unveiled Thursday by the Senate's education budget chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, could actually limit charter schools' potential funding, while still reining in how much districts spend on projects.

It would crackdown on what Gaetz called charter school "real-estate schemes" by prohibiting schools from using taxpayer dollars on "private enrichment" projects.

It also does away with what Senate staff called a "fairly tricky, involved" funding formula that decides how much capital money individual charter schools get and, instead, would prioritize money to schools that help primarily impoverished students or those with disabilities.

"We felt that we would try to add our values to the discussion," Gaetz said Thursday, adding that his plan "re-syncs the values" originally intended for charter schools of offering quality, alternative schools in low-income neighborhoods or innovative programs not offered in traditional public schools.

"I think to some extent we may have gotten away from that a little bit," said Gaetz, a former superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. "We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience."

It's unclear how the proposal might fare in the House, where a few key members -- including Fresen -- have close ties to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. (A member of Gaetz’s committee, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, also has connections; he and his wife run a charter school.) 

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February 10, 2016

Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July

@ByKristenMClark

State senators peppered education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz with questions on and off for an hour Wednesday afternoon about the Niceville Republican's plan to change how after-school and mentoring programs are funded, as the chamber started deliberating its budget plan for 2016-17.

Gaetz's proposal involves pooling together existing program funding from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice (which currently go to about a half-dozen or so designated organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys & Girls Clubs), adding more dollars to that pot and creating a $30 million competitive grant program.

Gaetz says it would make a more fair process, free of lobbying and politics, and open up the dollars to more non-profit organizations that provide aftercare services to Florida children. (More here.)

Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and several Democratic senators scrutinized the details of Gaetz's proposal during discussion on the Senate floor -- voicing skepticism through their questions that the plan could be implemented for the next budget year, which starts July 1, without affecting a funding stream that programs rely on.

They suggested a couple months wasn't enough time to set up the new state-appointed board that would vet program providers and decide which got how much money.

"I think President Gaetz is on to something that’s a good thing, because it becomes more of a fairness issue and a ranking issue, but it’s in the implementation that we have to look at this a little more closely," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said.

Gaetz countered every criticizing question with a defense.

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January 29, 2016

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.

January 21, 2016

With budget 'allocations' done, Senate is ready to spend $250M on economic development

The Florida House and Senate are reviving their traditional budget schedule and this week gave "allocations" to their budget subcommittee chairs that set the parameters for their chamber's proposed budget.

As happens most years -- except last year when budget negotiations broke down over health care spending -- this means that the chambers will have budget details available from subcommittees in the third week of session, in full committee in the fourth week and on the floor in the fifth week. 

"We're in a very, very conventional budget calendar,'' said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee. 

Neither Lee nor Senate President Andy Gardiner would disclose what their allocation numbers are for the decisions that are made behind closed doors. 

"We don't have an allocation document,'' Lee acknowledged "because if we had an allocation document, somebody is going to ask for it."

Both Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Lee said the decision on tax cuts will come later but Gardiner acknowledged that they are prepared to give the governor his full request for economic development funds -- $250 million -- for Enterprise Florida. 

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June 19, 2015

Legislators use $79 billion budget to choose winners -- and losers

When the sun shone on the legislative budget agreement completed an hour before midnight Monday, the examples of who-you-know politics came to light — millions of dollars in pet projects for legislative leaders and well-connected lobbyists.

But often faring worse were those projects that didn’t have a high-profile voice — those with waiting lists of services for the adult disabled, the elderly and even public safety.

Lauren’s Kids, the program to aid victims of sexual abuse founded by the daughter of super-lobbyist Ron Book of Miami, was funded for another year for $3.8 million. But the budget for high-risk probation officers who supervise sex offenders when they return to the community saw little change. Hundreds of officers will continue to have caseloads of violent offenders that exceed the 40-person maximum allowed by state law.

An online education program for prison inmates pushed by a well-connected lobbyist and former Republican Party staff member was funded for $1.5 million. But a public television program that allowed hundreds of teachers to access free instructional videos for their students to prepare for state tests was zeroed out.

Lawmakers included $12 million for a priority of Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to help families of children with disabilities pay for educational services, but they also cut millions in funding for services for 20,000 disabled adults.

On Friday, Florida legislators are poised to pass the $79 billion state budget by the June 30 deadline and end the bitter impasse that threw them into special session — at a cost to taxpayers of an extra $1.5 million this year. It’s a must-pass document and no changes will be allowed.

More here.

May 26, 2015

Is it really a $1 billion budget hole? Scott/AHCA and Senate disagree

Tensions continued to mount Tuesday between Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate as the governor blasted a Senate compromise and the governor’s Agency for Health Care administration issued a letter to the federal government suggesting that the state would not lose the $1 billion in federal money to reimburse hospitals for serving the uninsured under the low income pool as legislators previously suggested.

Agency for Health Care Administration deputy director Justin Senior sent a letter to the federal Department of Health and Human Services suggesting that “there is no need to infuse additional state general revenue to maintain current Medicaid hospital funding levels” in the 2015-16 budget year because local governments could draw down matching funds to offset the $1 billion not coming to the state.

He quotes the May 21 letter from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services which suggests that the state will get $1 billion and notes that "this level of funding for the LIP coupled with the options the state may elect at its discretion described in this letter would enable Florida to retain Medicaid investment in the state at or above the current $2.16 billion level of LIP funding.”

Senior concludes: "Based on this communication and our subsequent clarifying conversations, we understand that the renewed LIP will provide us with enough money to maintain current Medicaid program funding levels."  Download Wachino 526

He then attached a funding proposal that assumes local governments will draw down another $906 million and therefore eliminating the need for legislators to fill the funding gap for hospitals with general revenue funds.  Download Proposal

Senate President Andy Gardiner's response: not so fast.

He called the approach “shortsighted and only kicks the can down the road” because it fails to address the reforms the federal government wants the state to adopt in order to provide insurance to the uninsured.

“The plan proposed by AHCA relies on a particular premise—it assumes that CMS will approve a LIP plan or distribution model that devotes all or most of the LIP spending authority to incentivizing IGT [Inter-governmental transfers] donations and does not advance any of the reforms required for compliance with CMS principles,'' Gardiner said in a statement. "This assumption must be verified by CMS before the Legislature acts on this proposal.

“Using LIP exclusively as a financing mechanism in FY 2015-16 appears to minimize the amount of general revenue needed in rates or other provider payments for the coming year, but that approach is shortsighted and only kicks the can down the road, pushing the general revenue need to subsequent budget years.

“Any proposed spending plan should be a multi-year plan that establishes a foundation for comprehensive solutions. Specifically, the LIP cap declines by another $400 million in the next year and distribution of LIP payments must align with uncompensated care costs in the second year. Additionally, stricter guidelines on distribution of LIP payments take effect in the next year.

"“We believe any proposal must also be accompanied by a full LIP model in order to evaluate the specific impacts.”

January 01, 2015

Judge blasts Florida for depriving children of needed healthcare

By Carol Marbin Miller

A federal judge Wednesday declared Florida’s healthcare system for needy and disabled children to be in violation of several federal laws, handing a stunning victory to doctors and children’s advocates who have fought for almost a decade to force the state to pay pediatricians enough money to ensure impoverished children can receive adequate care.

In his 153-page ruling, U.S. Circuit Judge Adalberto Jordan said lawmakers had for years set the state’s Medicaid budget at an artificially low level, causing pediatricians and other specialists for children to opt out of the insurance program for the needy. In some areas of the state, parents had to travel long distances to see specialists.

The low spending plans, which forced Medicaid providers for needy children to be paid far below what private insurers would spend — and well below what doctors were paid in the Medicare program for a more powerful group, elders — amounted to rationing of care, the order said.

“This is a great day for the children in this state,” said Dr. Louis B. St. Petery, a Tallahassee pediatrician who is executive vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society and helped spearhead the suit. “This action was taken because we found that children weren’t being treated properly if they were on Medicaid. Our position as pediatricians,” he added, “is that children do not choose their parents. They don’t have a choice to be born into a rich family or a poor family.”

“We feel all children are of equal value,” St. Petery added.

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October 15, 2014

Report: Lower budget surplus will make campaign promises hard to reach

As Florida's governor's candidates face-off tonight for their second highly-anticipated debate in Broward County tonight, Florida TaxWatch is out with a sobering reminder.

The business-backed government watchdog group warns that the $336 million budget surplus Gov. Rick Scott, Charlie Crist and most of the Florida legislators are counting on to pay for their campaign promises is going to be pretty slim. (Scott, for example has promised $1 billion in cuts in taxes and fees over the next two years on top of new money for education and environment. ) In other words: be careful what you wish for.

"The $336 million surplus needs to be put into context," said Kurt Wenner, Vice President of Tax Research for Florida TaxWatch. "It is only 1.1 percent of projected General Revenue spending. It is also based on leaving only $1 billion in reserves, much smaller than what recent legislatures have left. The budget process will again be very competitive and it is our hope that each project will be thoroughly vetted by the full Legislature."

The report notes that this is the fourth straight year in which there has been a projected surplus heading into the legislative session, "but this surplus is much smaller than the $845.7 million surplus projected last year. Still, the continuation of the current string of surplus is a welcome change from the previous four years, which saw shortfalls averaging $2.7 billion." 

The TaxWatch report is also based on a set of assumptions that include the base budget will cover $1.2 billion in what the group deems "critical needs." That may be a bit of a subjective list. For example, as the Florida Department of Corrections faces a avalanche of excessive force and suspicious inmate death reports, TaxWatch still concludes there are no "critical needs" for funding in the state's criminal justice budget. Here's the report.

Here are the some of their budget assumptions: 

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October 10, 2014

Report: The untold jobs story -- as state workforce shrank, so did services

Workforce reportFrom the Center for Investigative Reporting:

Over the last decade, Florida has shed thousands of state jobs, the consequence of a poor economy and a political philosophy at work. The result has affected how well agencies that protect everything from children to the environment can do their jobs.

According to a workforce report compiled by the state, while the nationwide average number of state workers per 10,000 in population was 211 in 2012, Florida had just 111 that year. That’s almost half the national average.

The state’s population has grown by 4 million since 1998. Its budget has increased by $25 billion since 2000. Yet Florida has almost 10,000 fewer established positions in the State’s Personnel System, State University System, State Legislature, Courts System and Justice Administration combined, than it did 15 years ago.

This means Florida’s government has been operating at its lowest staffing levels in almost two decades.

Even as the economy rebounds, state government isn’t growing with it.

This has largely been the result of a predominately Republican Legislature, and three Republican governors since the late 1990s – all of whom campaigned on promises to shrink government.

As a result, public agencies tasked with protecting vulnerable children, monitoring waterways and providing benefits to Floridians who have fallen on hard times, are struggling to fulfill their mandates. More here. 

June 02, 2014

SkyRise Tower among the local projects vetoed by the governor

Gov. Rick Scott’s modest list of budget vetoes included $2 million for the controversial SkyRise Miami observation tower that had been a top priority of the Miami-Dade delegation, but most of the locally-sought projects survived.

“When you see a veto it kind of hurts a little but overall, I think we did very well,” said Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, chairman of the Miami Dade County legislative delegation.

Miami-Dade lawmakers originally sought $10 million to contribute to the $430 million observation tower to be located behind Bayside Marketplace and rising 1,000 feet into the air. But amid resistance from other legislators, they eventually whittled it down to $2 million with the condition that it would only be used on public infrastructure, such as sidewalks and driveways. The money was also contingent on the project securing $400 million in private-sector funding.

“The governor felt it wasn’t deserving of the merits, that’s fine,’’ said Gonzalez, who is serving his final term but he said he expects legislators to return next year for state money, when construction on the project is expected to be underway. “Maybe we can sell it then,’’ he said.

The governor also disappointed several other local groups by vetoing the following: 

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