While the outlook for the next session of the Legislature looks positive today with a budget surplus projected at some $437 million, a cautious approach to spending is warranted due to several potentially damaging situations. However, after years of slashing spending as revenue plunged, lawmakers could be in line to restore some of that funding.
Manatee County's legislative delegation met with more than two dozen government agencies and nonprofit organizations recently to hear their priorities for the 2013 session of the Legislature.
Both Manatee County government and the school district presented reasonable and equitable lists From among those priorities, here are the ones we most vigorously support:
n Don't approve measures that shift funding responsibilities from the state to local governments. This includes the costs of juvenile detention, which Manatee County is unfairly paying for out of voter-approved tax revenue reserved for specific children's programs. County commissioners are asking for the restoration of full state funding of juvenile assessment centers, a reasonable request.
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n Manatee Technical Institute finally received a fairer share of state money by convincing legislators last year that the workforce education funding formula was inequitable, but the Legislature left the primary task unfinished: creating a performance-based formula for all of the state's technical schools that ensures fair and full funding. Poor performing programs that fail to place a high number of students in jobs should not be rewarded for past success, as has been the case. MTI excels in vocational training.
n Fix the Medicaid billing system. Counties are being subjected to inaccurate bills from the state for nursing home and hospital patients who are not residents of said counties. This is costing counties millions in back payments as the Legislature mandated last year, and the erroneous billing continues. Manatee County still owes $2.7 million in unpaid bills.
n Support the state's infrastructure, specifically ports and roads. With Gov. Rick Scott embarking on trade missions to various countries, this should already be a high priority as the state seeks to increase international commerce.
As Manatee County commissioners propose, fully fund Enterprise Florida's international budget to promote the state's ports and do not raid the Transportation Trust Fund again.
We'll be more specific here: Put construction of the Port Manatee connector road on the fast track. With the opening of an expanded Berth 12, Port Manatee is prepared to receive more container cargo as Florida's closest deepwater port to the Panama Canal. A connector road to Interstate 75 is vital to the quicker transportation of goods to market.
n Ease the pressure on school districts to meet the class-size constitutional amendment in each individual classroom by reverting to the prior school wide average benchmark.
n Protect home rule No. 1. Do not interfere with county ordinances restricting fertilizer applications during the rainy season as a way to protect local waterways from nutrient pollution. This is a valuable way to improve water quality.
n Protect home rule No. 2. Repeal the unjust 2011 law that usurps the ability of local governments to regulate and restrict vacation rentals. The law shows an unreasonable favoritism toward developers and investors to the detriment of impacted residents and communities. This issue continues to embroil the island cities of Anna Maria and Holmes Beach in controversy.
n High on our own list of priorities is greater funding for education at all levels -- public schools and state colleges and universities. Despite the restoration of $1 billion in K-12 funding last year, that fell short of the previous year's cut. And higher education took a $300 million hit last year. If the state intends to be highly competitive in the global marketplace, we'll need a highly educated workforce.
Circumstances could short-circuit the current bright revenue picture: the looming "fiscal cliff" of federal spending cuts and tax increases, which one top state economist says could cost Florida some $375 million; and a state Supreme Court ruling that voids the 3 percent pension contribution newly required of state employees, which could blow a $2 billion hole in the budget.
Until those uncertainties are resolved, the Legislature will be compelled to proceed cautiously.
What are your priorities for next year's session? Contact the Manatee County delegation to express your views:
Sen. Bill Galvano, District 26; 850-487-5026; firstname.lastname@example.org
Sen. Arthenia Joyner, District 18; 813-233-4277, email@example.com
Rep. Jim Boyd, District 68; 850-488-4086; firstname.lastname@example.org
Rep. Greg Steube, District 67; 850-488-6341, email@example.com
Rep. Darryl Rouson, District 55; 850-488-0925; 727-906-3200; firstname.lastname@example.org