Children’s Movement sets legislative goals

TALLAHASSEE -- Backed by influential business and political figures, a children’s advocacy group that goes by the nickname “Milk Party” on Wednesday unveiled a $300 million wish list for cash-strapped Florida lawmakers to consider.

The Children’s Movement of Florida’s legislative priorities include providing health insurance for more children, strengthening preschool curriculum standards and increasing mentoring programs.

It also wants enhanced screening and treatment of special needs children and parenting skills training for moms and dads.

The nickname might be a knockoff of the insurgent tea party movement, but the Children’s Movement is strictly mainstream. The Milk Party has raised $1 million and hired a professional staff. Its agenda is endorsed by Florida TaxWatch, a private state budget watchdog organization with strong business support.

“These are not some -- You ready for this? -- some lefty folks from out somewhere,” said Children’s Movement president David Lawrence, a former Miami Herald publisher. “These are solid, strong business and civic leaders who look at practical things in Florida and how we spend the people’s money.”

Lawrence was joined at a news conference by Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of TaxWatch, and Carol Jenkins Barnett, president and board chairwoman of Publix Supermarket Charities.

Barnett sits on the Milk Party’s steering committee of 12 Republicans, 12 Democrats and three independents.

The Republicans include Florida Chamber of Commerce Chairman and former state House Speaker Allen Bense, former Lieutenant Gov. and ex-Florida Senate President Toni Jennings and former legislators Sandra Murman, Burt Saunders and Bill Sublette.

Some of the Democrats are state Sen. Nan Rich, former House Speaker Jon Mills, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth, former Education Commissioner and ex-University of South Florida President Betty Castor and her husband, former state Rep. Sam Bell, now a lobbyist.

Only 3 percent of funds Florida collects from state taxpayers is spent on children in the early learning years although 90 percent of brain development takes place by the age of 5, Lawrence said. He said spending $300 million more would raise the figure to 4 percent.

The group, though, unveiled its proposals just a day after state economists cut their general revenue estimate for the current and next budget years by more than $1 billion combined. That means the state is facing a potential shortfall of at least $3.5 billion for the budget year beginning July 1.

Lawrence and Calabro, though, said the state can pay for the children’s agenda without raising taxes. Calabro cited a study by a cost-saving task force that included business leaders and state officials sponsored by his organization. Last week, it presented 125 recommendations for saving more than $4 billion in state spending.

Lawrence said he’s discussed the Milk Party’s agenda with Governor-elect Rick Scott, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, all Republicans. He said they made no promises but said they would work with the group.

“I wouldn’t at this moment expect more than that,” Lawrence said.

He said it might take more than one legislative session to achieve the group’s goals but added, “I will be more than pained if we didn’t make progress” in 2011.