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Scott's budget proposal pitts education against healthcare for poor

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-996629.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Governor Rick Scott says he's learned a lot in his first year of being in Florida's highest office. One of the biggest lessons he's taken from Floridians is that they don't like the idea of more education cuts. So, as Lynn Hatter reports, his 2012 budget proposal steers an extra billion dollars into the state's public schools at the expense of the program that supports healthcare for poor.

In his first budget presentation to lawmakers earlier in the year, Governor Rick Scott proposed a 10-percent education budget cut. The move was met with a rare, bi-partisan reaction: instant condemnation. The legislature scaled it down to an eight-percent reduction. In his 2012 budget proposal, Scott reverses his stance.

"After traveling the state I heard what Floridians told me about education. So please allow me to be clear on one point. I will not sign a budget from the legislature that does not significantly increase state funding for education."

The news has been greeted with relief by lawmakers like Republican Senator David Simmons who chairs the Pre-K through 12 Appropriations committee:

"The cost of teaching our children right now is an investment, and I am glad. I am just so proud of what the governor has done."

But the state teachers union isn't buying it. The governor's proposal would bring funding levels to about 6300 dollars per student. Three years ago lawmakers were funding schools at a cost of 71-hundred dollars per student. And Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow says the governor's education increase still falls short of completely restoring cuts made earlier in year.

"Last year the legislature took away 542-dollars per student. The governor is proposing putting 110-dollars back. And if you add the 110-dollars to the number of students plus the increase in students, it doesn't come anywhere near the billion dollars. So, I don't know where that figure came from, maybe he's rounding up to the nearest billion or what the deal is there. But we have some concerns with that."

The Governor plans to offset the education budget increase by taking 1.8-billion dollars out of Medicaid- the health insurance program for low-income people. In Florida, the program largely covers women, children and adults with disabilities, and its cost has continued to increase year after year. Governor Scott says he can break that cycle by standardizing Medicaid payments for services and placing caps on emergency room visits and hospital admissions.

"Our current system of reimbursing hospital providers is unfair, illogical and incredibly expensive to Florida families and businesses."

Florida Hospital Association President Bruce Rueben sums up that part of the proposal in one word: catastrophic.

"What makes no sense is to set the objective at cutting two-billion dollars out of paying for hospital services for Medicaid recipients."

The governor's education-for-healthcare swap has some lawmakers, especially Democrats like Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, in a Catch-22:

"I think this is a serious problem for me because, I commend him for his new-found fervor for public education. But at whose expense is the problem. Then you have to look at where you're going to get it and I have not heard all the details yet, but it looks like he's going to be attacking healthcare, and that's problematic for us because we've been cutting healthcare also for the last few years."

Whether lawmakers can actually meet the Governor's budget expectations is something else. The state is grappling with a two-billion dollar budget deficit, while Scott is proposing a budget that's more than three-billion dollars less than it is now.