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Dems Pounce On Education Portion Of Budget Proposal

Alex Starr
Flickr Creative Commons

Though they took potshots at it last week, Democrats had their first chance to speak on the specifics of Governor Rick Scott’s budget proposal Tuesday.

A parade of Democratic House lawmakers directed questions about funding priorities at one of the governor’s budget experts, who was left to explain how schools, the uninsured and state employees would be treated.

Onlookers could be excused for thinking an otherwise routine House Appropriations Committee hearing had turned into a partisan debate. Office of Policy and Budget Director Cynthia Kelly, armed with a colorful, multi-slide PowerPoint presentation and a small army of subject experts behind her in the audience, laid out the governor’s proposal in careful detail and with a measured, academic tone.

But as Kelly ended and committee chair Seth McKeel pronounced the committee happy to work with the governor on his top issue, tax relief, Democrats were already preparing to refute McKeel’s statement. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) wanted to know about cuts to state staffing. Rep. Mia Jones (D-Jacksonville) questioned trust fund sweeps.

And then came the barrage of education questions. Rep. Reggie Fullwood (D-Jacksonville) attempted to contradict the governor’s claim that the level of K-12 education funding is “historic.”

“It appears that while the amount is high, the per-student funding amount still does not meet the amount that we were funding per-student in 2007-2008. So when you say historic funding, what exactly does that mean,” he asked.

What it means, Kelly says, is that the state has never spent more dollars on classroom education. But it’s also spending on remediating aging infrastructure, Kelly noted.

“The $80 million for maintenance and repair, $72.1 million for special facility needs. And there’s $90 million for charter school maintenance,” she says.

Those numbers didn’t add up for Rep. Joe Gibbons (D-Hallandale Beach).

“Just looking at Broward County alone, they need like $40 million just for roofs by themselves," Gibbons says. "And I don’t expect that you would have that responsibility, but I want to know how we come up with the figure of $80 million.”

The answer is at once funny and convoluted, and Kelly admitted as much in her tongue-in-cheek response.

“It’s one of these great statutory formulas: building values times building age, divided by the sum of the year’s digits, assuming a 50-year building life,” she says.

Gibbons went on to chide the governor for not using school construction projects to create more jobs. And the jobless weren’t the only ones who members of the Legislative Black Caucus wanted to look out for. House Minority Leader Perry Thurston (D-Fort Lauderdale) hinted at a thorny issue in his comments about uninsured Floridians, but it was Kelly who gave the issue its proper name.

THURSTON: “Where in the governor’s budget does he address how we’re going to care for the uninsured?”
KELLY: “The budget recommendations do not include any specific items related to…if you’re speaking about Medicaid expansion.”
THURSTON: “Medicaid expansion or otherwise – is there anywhere in the governor’s budget where he seeks to say ‘Well, this is how we’ll deal with the issue of Florida’s uninsured population’?”
KELLY: “There’s no specific funding recommended, sir.”

It went on like this for almost an hour, with Kelly sometimes calling other members of her staff to the podium to explain the minutia of the budget. It’s a document that has warranted little more than the legislative equivalent of a whisper thus far. The next steps are uncertain, but for a few. First, it’s assured the Legislature must square its priorities with the governor. Second: there will be many more pointed conversations like Tuesday’s.