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Water Projects, Education Funding Key Differences Between Legislative Budget Proposals

Sascha Cordner

The Florida House and Senate are $400 million apart in their state spending plan proposals for the upcoming fiscal year. The House is pushing a $75.3 billion proposal while the Senate's comes in at $74.9 billion. That’s a lot closer than the chambers have been in recent years, thanks to an influx of cash from a recovering economy. But the proposals take different routes to funding two key areas: water projects and school construction.

Water, Water Everywhere

Last summer, Central Florida was awash in water. Lake Okeechobee overflowed its banks, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers steered that polluted overflow into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee Rivers. The results included health warnings, toxic algae blooms and animal die-offs.

“Early July, we saw about 50 percent dead. We went out a few weeks later, and it was about 99 percent dead," says Florida Oceanographic Society scientist Vincent Encomio in describing the death of the Indian River Lagoon oysters.

Encomio and other researchers dubbed the Summer of 2013“the lost summer”—as water-based businesses in the region suffered an economic shock. “Then we confirmed with other scientists doing work on oysters the St. Lucie River that when they went out, they had not found any live oysters," he said.

Now the Senate is poised to steer $225 million into projects re-routing water flow in the region, including cleaning up what gets dumped into the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee. Everglades Foundation Ecologist Steven Davis says the projects include finishing a bridge on the Tamiami Trail that dams up water so it can’t flow into the Everglades.

“By fixing the problem we alleviate that issue and can restore the quality of water and quality of life for those who live along those water bodies, and that’s the message we try to convey," Davis says.

The Everglades is important, Davis says, because it also recharges Florida’s aquifer—where the state gets most of its drinking water. The House, though, plans to spend about $33 million less on those projects.   Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron says there are bigger differences between the two chambers.

Springs To Become Negotiation Point Between House And Senate

“I think some of the bigger issues will be higher education. We have a little more money on the Florida Residents Access Grants than the House does," Negron told reporters following Thursday's Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the chamber's budget proposal. "They have more funding in the springs program than we have, but I think they are manageable differences we can work out.”

Take for example, North Florida's Wakulla Springs. For generations, Wakulla Springs has served as a tourist spot—with visitors coming to enjoy its clear cool waters. But in recent years, its famous glass-bottom boats haven’t been getting as much use. And those crystal clear waters have turned foggy due to an influx of pollutants. As the Senate attends to water flow in Central and South Florida, the House is proposing to put $50 million toward restoring Florida’s springs. The Senate figure is around $20 million.

Chambers Differ On Funding School Construction, Maintenance

When it comes to education, both chambers have different ideas for how to fund the construction and maintenance of the state’s public schools, colleges and universities. It’s called Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO.

PECO funding has been scarce in recent years, due to drastic decreases in trust fund revenue and the amount of money being used to pay off already completed projects.   The House wants to spend nearly $600 million on school construction projects in the upcoming fiscal year, with a big chunk of that going to charter schools, but Florida School Board Association President Wayne Blanton says the backlog of maintenance projects is so large, more is needed.

“If we could get a consistent amount of dollars in the range of $350 million to $400 million a year, it would allow us to not only keep our schools up but replace those older schools which, quite frankly, cost more than an older school," Blanton says.

The House arrived at its PECO budget using a proposal from State Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam that diverts some businesses utility tax revenue into the PECO fund.  The Senate’s PECO budget is more than $270 million less than the House’s—but that chamber’s leaders say they’re open to taking a look at the House’s PECO funding plan as negotiations begin to unfold.

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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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