Monday, May 15, 2017

Recapping Florida’s 2017 Legislative Session - Part 1

The Old Capitol Building
Tallahassee, FL
The 2017 Legislative Session ended Monday, 3 days late, because the House and Senate could not get their only constitutionally-mandated job — passing a balanced budget for the 2017–18 fiscal year — done on time.

It took Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran making significant deals behind closed doors to get it done, for which they have been widely criticized. (Sunshine State News)

Gov. Rick Scott got just a fraction of the tax cuts he wanted and his three biggest priorities (VISIT FLORIDA tourism marketing, Enterprise Florida incentives to lure businesses to the state, and money to speed up rebuilding the leaking dike around Lake Okeechobee) were virtually ignored. (BizJournals.com)

In this post, I’ll take a high-level look at the budget deal Corcoran and Negron reached with an emphasis on the areas I’m most interested in: education, health care and the environment. In my next post, I’ll look more specifically at how K–12 education was affected.

A high-level look at the budget


The deal struck resulted in a $82.4 billion budget, which is essentially unchanged from the current year. An additional $2.4 billion in additional appropriations is contained in budget conforming bills for items including hospital funding (the low income pool), state employee pay raises, Visit Florida, Enterprise Florida and educational programs. (More below.)


Education


The Legislature approved K–12 funding of $20.4 billion, up just 1.2% ($241 million) over the current year. This equates to per-student funding of $7,220.72, up just 0.3%.

Beyond what was in the main budget bill, a 274-page, $419 million education policy overhaul (HB 7069) was cobbled together and narrowly passed in the session's final days. In a statement on the House budget, Speaker Richard Corcoran touted the package of “innovative programs to end failure factories” and said "I think [it] is going to go down as one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida." (Miami Herald / FloridaPolitics.com)

While separate from the budget, I'm discussing HB 7069 in this post because it's such a significant amount of money. It includes many priorities of the school choice movement, and -- if signed by the Governor -- it will affect everything from charters and recess to teacher contracts and virtual schooling.

For example, it funds a $140 million “Schools of Hope” program that offers incentives to privately-managed charter schools to entice them to take over low-performing public schools in poor neighborhoods. This program is opposed by many who because it takes money away from already-struggling districts.

The bill also includes $234 million to expand to more teachers and extend to principals the “Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program” which awards bonuses based on GPA or scores on standardized tests. Many, including the Governor, question the program's assumption that those who did well while in high school on standardized tests make the best teachers or principals.

In another controversial funding area resolved by compromise, two school voucher programs were significantly expanded. The Gardiner Scholarship program benefiting children with disabilities was broadened so that more could qualify, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program got more money so families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive. That program, made possible “almost entirely by a single organization led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate,” gives businesses dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donating money to the scholarship fund. (Miami Herald / Sunshine State News)

Calls for veto

In the hours and days since Monday’s session-end, supporters of public education have spoken out strongly. The state’s largest teachers union was among the first, urging the Governor to veto the K–12 part of the budget as well as HB 7069.

The Florida League of Women Voters said the Legislature “sent a message that our schools, teachers, and students are not valued,” and also called for the veto of HB 7069.

In a fact-filled and strongly-worded editorial titled “Gov. Rick Scott should veto efforts to starve public schools,” the Tampa Bay Times wrote, “Gov. Rick Scott should veto the anemic public schools budget and a mammoth education bill that was negotiated in secret and micromanages school districts to death.”

And in an editorial titled “Long state legislative session came up short,” the Naples Daily News wrote, “Teacher retention in public schools is a critical issue in Collier and Lee. The Legislature delivered a paltry $24 more per student, some $200 less per student than Scott proposed. House leaders instead crowed about helping charter schools.”

Health Care


Legislators struggled to resolve health care funding issues, ultimately agreeing to cut $521 million from hospitals, including a reduced reimbursement rate for serving poor and uninsured patients. (Naples Daily News / Health News Florida)


Environment


Funding for the environment is always a contentious issue. Ultimately, Senate President Negron got money for his priority, a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee that will be used to help avoid harmful discharges to coastal waterways. And while the budget includes funding for beach and springs restoration, nothing was provided for the Florida Forever land acquisition program. (FloridaPolitics.com / Tampa Bay Times)

My take


Like many, I am not happy with the budget that was passed. Per student K–12 funding was shortchanged at the expense of a private school voucher program and charter school expansions. Gov. Scott does have the power to veto the entire budget, but that’s unlikely since Speaker Corcoran has said they have the votes to override. I can only hope the Governor will use his ability to line-item veto budget items and/or veto outright HB 7089.

Hospitals that care for the poor and uninsured will have to make do with half a billion dollars less. The will of Floridians who approved the Water and Land Conservation Amendment 1 in 2014 was again ignored.

We need to do better.

This is not the first year I’ve been unhappy with the Florida budget, but wouldn't it be great if it was the last? Next year, Floridians will elect a new Governor and Cabinet, all 120 members of the House, and 20 of the 40 members of the Senate.

Elections matter. We need to be paying attention and start preparing now.



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