State Politics

Fla. House school budget includes stimulus money

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House leaders ended speculation they might turn down stimulus dollars for education by putting about $1 billion in federal recovery cash into a preliminary public schools budget Thursday, but they may yet reject a big chunk of stimulus aid for the unemployed.

Florida already is getting — with no strings attached — about $1.3 billion from the stimulus program to increase unemployment compensation by $25 a week and extend federal emergency benefits, which had been set to expire March 28, through the end of the year.

The state, though, would have to permanently increase some other benefits to qualify for another $1.1 billion in temporary unemployment stimulus. House leaders are worried that could raise the state’s costs and workers compensation taxes paid by employers.

“We’re still very confused regarding the unemployment compensation,” said House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach.

“No one has a straight answer,” Hasner said. “We’re not going to make decisions that may have a short-term popular effect but that are going to have long-term negative consequences.”

Senate leaders, though, are more willing to do what it takes to get the additional stimulus dollars.

“I am concerned with the number of unemployed folks we have, and if we can provide some more I’d like to do more within reason,” said Senate Ways and Means Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. But, he added, “If you go too far on increased taxes it also can destroy jobs.”

The House and Senate also differ on how much to expand Seminole Indian gaming at tribal casinos, and that has affected their budget proposals.

The Senate’s draft education budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 calls for no change in the current spending of $6,860 per student, but it includes Indian gaming money as well as the education stimulus dollars.

The House plan doesn’t have any gaming funds and would cut school spending 10 percent, but the reduction for each student is expected to be smaller. That figure will be released next week.

The Senate budget draft includes $300 million in Indian gaming money, but that figure could increase to as much as $1 billion under a proposal the chamber is considering. It would let the Seminole Tribe of Florida turn its Hard Rock Cafes into full-blown casinos while giving dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons a chance to put in machines that look a lot like Vegas-styled slots.

The House has a working proposal that would permit fewer types of new games and bring in about $100 million.

Rep. Anitere Flores, the House’s lead budget writer for pre-kindergarten through high school education, said it would be premature to put the gambling money into the budget draft because lawmakers have not yet approved an agreement with the Seminoles.

“Responsibly, what we need to do is work with the money that we know we have on the table right now,” said Flores, R-Miami. “Technically we don’t even know if we have the federal stabilization money, but we are quite optimistic about that.”

Florida will need a waiver from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to obtain $2.7 billion in stimulus money for education over the next two budget years because state spending on public schools has declined since 2006.

The Florida Education Association’s Marshall Ogletree said it’s hard to compare the preliminary budget proposals from the two chambers, both controlled by Republicans, at this point, but the teachers union lobbyist was encouraged that the House is taking the stimulus money.

Even with the stimulus and gaming money and a series of proposed fee increases, Alexander expects the Senate to cut up to $1 billion in spending to balance the budget due to a shortfall in tax collections and other revenue. The chamber expects to release its first overall budget draft Friday. The House version is due out next week.

Alexander expects the Senate to offer additional revenue increases including a cigarette tax hike, which House leaders so far have opposed.

The Senate also has floated a proposed state constitutional amendment that would raise sales tax by a penny per dollar with proceeds going to public schools but with a provision to loosen costly class size limits voters approved in 2002.

The Florida Education Association, which has opposed changes to the class size limits in the past, hasn’t yet decided whether to back the Senate plan while House leaders threw cold water on the idea Thursday.

“We’re intrigued by it,” said union lobbyist Ogletree. “The only way we can accept the change in class size is to have some funding to make sure our schools aren’t going to crash and burn.”

A sales tax increase isn’t part of the House’s economic plan, Hasner said.