TALLAHASSEE -- What do landline telephones have to do with school repairs?
Quite a bit, but few state lawmakers want to talk about it.
Tucked away on your telephone bill — and electricity and cable TV bills — is a tax that supports school construction and maintenance.
But there’s a problem: As Floridians cut down their electricity and cable consumption — and ditch their landline telephones for wireless smart phones — far less money is flowing into the Public Education Capital Outlay fund, or PECO fund. That leaves public schools, colleges and universities on their own to address their aging roofs, leaky pipes and outdated air-conditioning systems.
Last week, the Florida House passed a short-term fix that involves shifting some existing tax collections into the PECO fund.
Some officials, however, are reluctant discuss a long-term solution.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos said it would probably have to wait until next year, when Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, takes over as the Senate’s president.
“These are some of the issues that will be on his plate, and we want to make sure we think long-term and not just short-term,” said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.
A decade ago, the PECO fund provided almost $1 billion for school construction and maintenance, and accounted for about a quarter of all expenditures on school facilities.
But the fund’s revenues have waned over time. Last year, the state could not award any PECO dollars to traditional public schools. It gave a smaller-than-usual share to charter schools and the higher-education system.
This year, state economists have said the fund is almost out of money — and headed toward a deficit.
At first, the situation seemed so dire that Gov. Rick Scott initially said some projects currently being funded by PECO would have to be halted, and requested that some of the money be returned to the state. He later said that would not be necessary.
The news has shaken South Florida school districts, which are concerned about the state of their schoolhouses.
The Miami-Dade district, for example, has about $300 million to spend on facilities next year, most of which is needed for debt service. Meanwhile, the school system has about $2 billion in unmet maintenance needs, ranging from new roofs to new fences.
“This is a program that is under considerable stress, particularly in mature communities where you have a disproportionate number of schools that are aging,” Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said.
Facilities are also a concern in the state university system, where the current maintenance balance is $85 million.
“This could be one of the most significant strategic challenges that our entire system will face,” Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg recently told the Board of Governors.
To help, the House recently approved a measure that would increase some of the taxes that fund PECO, while decreasing some of the taxes that flow into state’s general fund. The measure could generate an estimated $382 million for school facilities.
The House has recommended that about $300 million fund projects at state colleges and universities, and $55 million fund projects at charter schools.
Traditional public schools are not expected to receive any PECO funds.
Rep. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, who chairs the House PreK-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said the money was allocated to charter schools because traditional public schools can levy property taxes. Charter schools cannot.
The Senate’s budget proposal, released late Friday, does not have a similar mechanism for increasing PECO funding.
The upper house wants to dispense $73.5 million in PECO funds. Of the total, $55 million would support charter schools. The rest would go to colleges and universities.
Before the budget was released, Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander noted that technological problems have plagued PECO funding, and said the Senate budget proposal would have to take that into account.
“But the direction that the governor and the [Senate] president, particularly, have given me — and senators generally — is we don’t want new taxes and fees,” he said.
Alexander said he was confident the Senate would come up with a plan.
“I don’t think we’ll want to have buildings out there that we’re not properly maintaining,” he said.
What’s next for PECO?
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, acknowledged that the tax on landline telephones, cable television and electricity is “outdated” and will continue to dwindle as technology advances.
Fresen said he would be willing to discuss using some of the revenue from a proposed Internet sales tax to offset the decline in PECO collections.
“It is incumbent on this Legislature to decide on one of two things,” Fresen said. “Do we want to get out of capital outlay all together? Or do we figure out a way to shift things we are already collecting?”