Lawmakers back slight increase in student funding

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The House and Senate agreed to a relatively modest increase in per-student funding for public schools Friday, as negotiations continued over state spending for the budget year that begins July 1.

Under an agreement reached by leaders, per-student spending through the state's main formula for schools would increase 0.34 percent, or $24.49 a head. Discussions on other education projects were expected to continue.

Lawmakers' ability to significantly increase per-student funding was hampered by two decisions that carried out other House priorities: to not allow local education property taxes to rise with real estate values, and to plow more than $400 million into teacher bonuses and the House's "schools of hope" proposal.

Neither of those two items is included in the main formula, known as the Florida Education Finance Program, or FEFP. But lawmakers involved in the education budget talks said not accounting for the additional spending doesn't give a full picture of what the Legislature is doing for education.

"It's been our theme from the very beginning that we're going to laser-target those students in the high-need areas," said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who chairs the House's education budget subcommittee.

The details of how to spend the $400 million remain up in the air. Initially, House leaders had set aside almost $214 million for the "Best and Brightest" bonus program for teachers, anticipating a surge of new awards after expanding which teachers are eligible and expanding the program to cover principals as well.

Another $200 million would go to the "schools of hope" program, which is meant to encourage charter schools to open in areas where traditional public schools have struggled academically.

But all $414 million is now combined into one line item that will be divvied up based on details the two chambers are still discussing. Senate leaders hope to make some of the "schools of hope" money available to traditional public schools for wraparound services, like health care and after-school programs.

Lawmakers said how much goes to each program could fluctuate based on the final agreement.

"We look forward to allocating that based upon our discussions, but I do believe that they'll be consistent with what has previously been presented, and that is almost 50-50," said Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate education budget panel.

Across the state budget, now expected to weigh in at nearly $83 billion, negotiating committees worked to hammer out their remaining differences to beat a looming deadline. Because of a constitutionally required 72-hour "cooling off" period, the spending plan has to be finished by Tuesday to finish the legislative session on May 5, as scheduled.

The House announced it wouldn't meet as a full body Monday as leaders try to negotiate final details.

Elsewhere, House and Senate negotiators agreed to reduce Medicaid hospital rates by about $651 million, but the proposal did not account for money that hospitals are expected to receive through the Low Income Pool program.

Gov. Rick Scott recently announced that $1.5 billion would be available through the so-called LIP program, which sends additional money to hospitals that care for large numbers of poor and uninsured patients. State and federal health officials continue to negotiate how the money could be used.

On the environment, the Senate was backing away from at least some of its funding of Florida Forever, a land conservation proposal.

"In order to do the things we need to do in South Florida, with the St. Johns River, all throughout the state, with Lake Apopka, tough choices had to be made," said Sen. Rob Bradley, the Fleming Island Republican who chairs the Senate's environmental budget committee.

Meanwhile, complaints about transparency continued to dog the budget process.

In comments to reporters Friday, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, was responsible for mingling discussions of policy issues with negotiations about the outline of the budget that lawmakers are now filling in.

Those discussions are not always separate, but Latvala said the ties this year were almost unprecedented, and seemed to indicate it was hypocritical of Corcoran, who has promised to clean up the operations of the House.

"I haven't seen to the extent that we've seen it this year, of deciding so many issues as a part of the budget process," Latvala said. "I've never seen that before. But that's driven strictly by the guy that wants transparency, from the other end down there."

Corcoran's office declined to comment on Latvala's remarks.

Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, also lashed out at the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

"All the lofty speeches we heard about the new era of openness and transparency that would be brought to the budget process this year were apparently nothing more than meaningless words," Ausley said in a statement. "Instead, the priorities of two people are taking precedence over the priorities of the people of Florida."