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Scott tells schools to give back PECO money

Members of the Florida House of Representatives are wasting no time getting to work in shaping a budget for 2012. The chamber’s higher education committee was the first to hear the governor’s budget recommendations, which call for no cuts to the state’s public colleges and universities. But as Lynn Hatter reports, some lawmakers are expressing concern with another request by the governor, who has told the schools to give back 250-million dollars in construction money.

House Higher Education Appropriations Committee Chair Marlene O’Toole says she hopes to get started writing next year’s budget by next week, when the latest revenue estimates come in.

“Meanwhile, we can start going through this line-by-line to determine what we hope we’ll have. We are going to try to get our budget, both Senator Lynn and I, we want to get it done as quickly as we can.”

Governor Rick Scott wants lawmakers to hold the funding steady for the state’s public higher education institutions, but O’Toole, a Republican from the Villages, says that may be difficult to do given the state doesn’t know how much money it will have to work with. Earlier in the year lawmakers expected to lose between $330-400 million in higher ed funding. But O’Toole says the picture is looking better.

“But we will have a cut. And it may not be in every line. It may be that universities get a cut and the tech schools don’t or the tech schools get a cut and the middle schools don’t, but we’re going to do our due diligence while it’s fresh in our minds.”

Governor Rick Scott calls for eliminating funding to the state’s private colleges and universities, including the Historically Black Schools. That doesn’t sit well with Democrats, but O’Toole says the governor’s recommendations are exactly that. There is also no tuition increase.

The governor also wants to hold back construction and maintainence money for higher education. Last year the governor vetoed those allocations and only gave money to charter schools. This year he wants to give 55-million to charter schools and none for the state’s public colleges and universities. In fact, he’s asking those schools to give back $250-million.  Scott Kittle is with the governor’s budget office. He says the give-back is needed because the trust fund that supports the building fund, called PECO, is almost empty and there isn’t enough money to put up for bonds on new projects.

 “The PECO trust fund is seeing significant decreases in the amount of revenue available to issue new bonds. We’re at a state where next year the revenue conference has projected that there is no revenue for PECO funding.”

Governor Scott request that schools return PECO money would tap into funds that the legislature awarded during the 2009-2010 legislative session.  In a letter to the schools, Scott calls for reverting up to $250 million of unspent money from previously appropriated PECO projects.  Representative Mia Jones, a Jacksonville Democrat, says she’s concerned.

“I’m assuming they’re asking them ‘is there anything you have on the books that you know is just not going to happen right now. So I’m going to wait and see what comes out of it and what the responses are.”

Officials with the colleges and universities say it’s not that easy to simply hand over $250 million. A lot of that money has already been spent or is tied up in contracts, which would cost the schools money to break.  But in a memo to the universities and colleges, the Department of Education says projects already under contract would be exempt from the request. Land acquisitions, planning, design and equipment money would also not revert back to the state.

 Still, those schools question how they can be expected to plan for the future when they don’t know if or when someone is going to ask for the money back.

Follow @HatterLynn

Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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