State Politics

Education will not be spared budget ax

TALLAHASSEE — The state legislative session is only three days old, and already it’s bad news for schools.

House Speaker Larry Cretul in a memo to members Thursday cautioned that preliminary figures for the House version of the state budget call for hits to the schools, despite efforts to avoid them.

Cretul, R-Ocala, said efforts to cover revenue shortfalls “will not be sufficient to avoid significant reductions in education services or programs.”

Legislators have discounted Gov. Charlie Crist’s rosy budget proposal last month, which promised extra money for schools. Instead, Cretul says the Legislature will struggle to cover a budget shortfall of from $1.1 billion to $3.2 billion.

Declines in property values, which are the basis for school taxes, will mean a loss of $778 million, Cretul indicated. The Legislature will make up a share so that taxpayers are not asked to pay more for the portion of school taxes assigned by the state, he said. But there are no specifics on how that will be done, and Cretul indicates that on the bottom line the schools still will be faced with cuts to make ends meet.

In an e-mail late Thursday to the Bradenton Herald, Manatee County Schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal said, “This is what we have expected. The governor’s budget was overly optimistic in state revenues. We know the Legislature will face lower revenues in 2010-11.

“We are expecting cuts of between $6 million and $15 million for next year.”

Earlier Thursday night, McGonegal led a town hall meeting with parents, residents and district staff in an effort to find ways to trim the district’s budget for the upcoming school year.

Cretul said the Legislature will make sure funding for schools doesn’t fall below the minimum required for the state to continue qualifying for federal stimulus funds. But he also pointed out that the state will face an even worse funding crisis in the following 2011-12 budget year, when the stimulus money is gone. The shortfall could be more than $5 billion that year.

Educators have been referring to the loss of the federal money, which has been propping up Florida schools, as the “funding cliff.”

Ax to hit roads, services

With a need to cut up to $3.2 billion from government spending, Florida House budget writers want to reap the biggest savings by scuttling road projects, cutting benefits for state workers and scaling back regulation.

In his memo, Cretul stressed that even though tax collections are increasing, the dollars haven’t kept pace with inflation or the recession-driven growth in demand for social services.

As part of a plan to make the budget work more transparent, Cretul’s office released budget “allocations” — rough directives to budget committees usually not publicly released and seldom ever completed in the first week of the 60-day session. The priorities are only the starting point as the Legislature writes a spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Cretul’s directives are also likely to look much different from the Senate’s version, which won’t take shape until state economists next week revise their estimates of how much tax revenue the state could bring in next year.

But they offer some insight into the philosophical leanings of the Republican-led chamber, which seeks to shield classrooms and college campuses while forcing social services, road construction and state employees to shoulder cuts.

“Significant reductions … will be needed to achieve and maintain a balanced budget,” Cretul said. “This will be more difficult than in previous years because the low-hanging budgetary fruit has already been picked.”

The dollars lawmakers use to write a budget come from general tax revenue, state trust funds, a few other sources and the “flexible” federal stimulus cash Congress sent to the states last year. This year’s $66.5 billion budget includes $5.5 billion in stimulus dollars, which begin drying up next year.

All told, Cretul’s plan shows total general-revenue spending growing from the $21.19 billion appropriated for 2009-10 to $23.25 billion — largely because Florida tax collections are going up after three years of declines.

The House plan also involves “sweeping” $802 million from trust funds — many of which finance regulatory agencies — and using the cash to plug holes.

About $449 million would come from the transportation trust fund, which pays for road projects and is considered a sacred cow in the Senate.

The House expects to use $361 million from the state’s tobacco-settlement fund for health programs and to allocate $1.35 billion in federal “stabilization” funds to classrooms and college campuses.

But it would cut government-employee compensation by $36.9 million, or 2.5 percent — likely by reducing or ending the free health insurance that about 20,000 state workers receive.

Cretul cautioned that the growing costs of programs such as Medicaid will more than eat up the extra money and likely will lead to an overall reduction to the programs.

Increases in Medicaid costs are expected to amount to $842 million next year, while the health-insurance program for the poor will see another $924 million hole when federal stimulus Medicaid funds “flame out” next December.