House, Senate far apart on school construction

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet approved the sale Tuesday of up to $233 million in education construction bonds, the question remains whether lawmakers will follow through on a second year of borrowing to fund building projects in the public-school, state-college and university systems.

Ben Watkins, director of the state Division of Bond Finance, said the vote represented the final authorization of bonds in the Public Education Capital Outlay, commonly known as PECO, program that were part of the 2016-17 state budget passed last year. The budget authorized a $625 million PECO program, including approximately $275 million in bonds.

The Senate and House will take up their proposed 2017-18 budget bills Wednesday with major differences on PECO funding for the coming year.

The Senate bill (SB 2500) uses bonding and would provide a $617 million PECO program. The House bill (HB 5001) does not use bonding and has a more austere PECO plan, although it provides significant funding for repair and maintenance projects for public schools, state colleges and universities.

Ultimately, House and Senate negotiators will have to resolve their differences and agree on a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Aside from bonding, a major difference is that the Senate bill includes some $305 million in construction projects for state colleges and universities that are not included in the House bill.

At the K-12 level, the House budget would provide $100 million in PECO funding for the maintenance and repair of charter schools and $20 million for public schools. The Senate budget provides $75 million each to charter and public schools.

The two budgets are in agreement on $2.2 million in maintenance funding for the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine.

Both budgets also would provide $3.2 million for public broadcasting projects, including $1.8 million to replace a transmission tower at WGCU-TV in Fort Myers and $650,000 to replace studio lighting at WFSU-TV in Tallahassee.

The House budget is more generous in maintenance and repair money for the higher-education system. It includes $55 million for the 28 state colleges and $115 million for the 12 state universities. The Senate has $38 million for the state colleges and $46 million for the universities.

But the House budget does not include $129 million in state college construction projects and $176 million in university projects that are in the Senate bill.

Major college projects that would be funded by the Senate include: $10.4 million for a science and technology building at Gulf Coast State College; $7.9 million for an industrial technology building at Indian River State College; $10.8 million for a dental and medical technology building at Palm Beach State College; and $11 million for a classroom building at Pensacola State College.

The major university projects that would be funded by the Senate include: $12.4 million for a student affairs building at Florida A&M University; $20 million for a School of Water Resources and Integrated Sciences facility at Florida Gulf Coast University; $24 million for an Earth Ocean Atmospheric Sciences building at Florida State University; and $16.6 million for the Morsani College of Medicine and Heart Health Institute at the University of South Florida.

The Senate and House will also have to work out PECO differences for public-school projects in rural counties that rely on the program to offset a lack of funding from their tax bases.

The Senate has $51 million for small-county projects in Dixie, Hamilton, Taylor, Liberty and Jackson counties. The House has $60 million for projects in Hamilton, Taylor, Liberty, Jackson, Gilchrist and Bradford counties.