TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Advocates for children and youth services were upbeat Tuesday as Gov. Rick Scott signed the budget for the state fiscal year beginning July 1.
The spending plan includes more money for child abuse prevention and maternal health as well as additional money for systemic improvements to the state's early learning and child welfare systems.
The Guardian ad Litem program, which represents children in the courts, got its entire budget request. KidCare, the federal-state subsidized health insurance program for children, was extended to state workers who make little enough to qualify. A Boys and Girls Clubs gang prevention project – vetoed last year – was funded this time around.
"In a very tight budget year, children fared better than we thought they might at the beginning of the legislative session," said Roy Miller, president of the Children's Campaign.
The Department of Children and Families got its request for $9.8 million to raise the base salaries of child protection investigators by $4,000 in the hope of retaining more of them – which DCF Sec. David Wilkins said is part of his strategy for being more efficient with state dollars.
DCF's new budget increases the base salary for 828 fully trained investigators from $35,900 to $39,600. It also creates a "career ladder" whereby 202 senior investigators, and investigator supervisors and field supervisors see their salaries climb higher.
The governor also signed off on $12.4 million for technological and training improvement to the state abuse hotline. And Ted Granger, president of the United Way of Florida, said it was good news for children and parents that the Early Learning Information System, which has fallen well behind schedule, was funded.
"And that's huge because right now there's no central record-keeping database for the school readiness system," Granger said. "And this will bring us into the 21st century. We're currently back in the 19th."
Lack of a data matching system such as the one that will now be paid for was blamed during the session for $40 million in fraud. These were costs incurred when parents on the unemployment rolls also placed their children in early learning programs, although they couldn't be eligible for both.
Granger also pointed to restored funding for Healthy Start, which reduces infant mortality, Healthy Families, which teaches parenting and prevents abuse, and Early Steps, for toddlers with developmental delays.
Both Wilkins and Granger mentioned relatively minimal cuts to community-based adult mental health and substance abuse treatment programs, which DCF administers.
"We were thrilled that the Legislature only cut $2 million from adult mental health and substance abuse," Granger said, "because they were slated in the Senate to take huge cuts that would have been bad not only for those folks but for all the people in the state of Florida."
Louis St. Petery, vice president of the Florida Pediatric Society, said Children's Medical Services, the program for children with special health care needs, had a close call over a bill reorganizing the Department of Health.
"In its original form, the bill had some very disastrous consequences," he said. "Fortunately, we were able to get all of those CMS changes reversed, so that the child protection team remains intact, the poison control program remains intact, and both were fully funded."
St. Petery said Children's Medical Services itself, with a few exceptions, was funded to the same level as before.
Miller also said Scott had been prudent in not cutting budget items for children, such as $4.6 million to help community-based care organizations statewide.
"There were many that didn't get nailed," he said.
Wilkins, who also oversees Scott's efforts to increase the efficiency of state agencies, said the governor had been true to his philosophy of government in his budget choices.
"We'll never have enough money for all the social services programs that we have," Wilkins said Tuesday. "The wise way is to prove you're spending the money in the most efficient, effective way."
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