By Gary Fineout
Gov. Charlie Crist could act today on the $70.4 billion budget that state lawmakers adopted during their spring session.
Many salient facts about the budget – which covers state spending from July 1 of this year until June 2011 – have been reported including that it’s bigger than what Crist himself proposed, that it includes money for items only if Congress kicks in extra federal help, and that it contains many projects pushed by the two budget chiefs in the Legislature.
But there’s always some interesting odds and ends that haven’t gotten much attention. Some of these spending items are perennials and have been in the state budget for years and are unlikely to get vetoed by the governor.
Still it’s a testament to what can get wedged into a 444-page document.
1. School funding study – $100,000. The budget sets aside $100,000 to hire an “entity located outside the state of Florida” to study the state’s school funding formula and review it for the “sole purpose of recommending any improvements to the existing formula that would better reflect the varying characteristics of each of the 67 school districts.” This study – which is due by Jan. 1, 2011 – is also supposed to assess the “equity” of the current school funding formula. This is a big deal for South Florida lawmakers still upset with a 2004 change to the state’s school funding formula that used to steer more money to urban school districts to cover higher living expenses. Legislators especially from Miami-Dade County want someone outside the state to look at whether the revamped formula is fair. This could be the prelude to another big fight next year over school funding.
2. Some college students helped, some college students hurt. There has been publicity surrounding the proposed changes to Bright Futures – the popular merit based scholarship program paid out of Lottery ticket sales. But less noticed was a decision by state lawmakers to actually increase the amount of financial aid set aside for needy college students.
Legislators for example cut by $1 a credit hour the money available for Bright Futures. This cut, however, could even be a bit larger since $25 million is contingent on getting extra money from the federal government to help with Florida’s Medicaid bill. The move comes at the same time lawmakers increased tuition by 8 percent and universities are authorized to raise tuition even higher. But lawmakers also helped out Bright Futures students attending community colleges that offer four-year degree programs.
Funding for two financial aid programs that help students at private schools – including the Florida Resident Access Grant – was cut by 4.1 percent.
But lawmakers did give a slight increase for need-based financial aid provided to both public and private school students. The maximum amount per award would go from $2,069 to $2,235.
Legislators also passed HB 5201 to accompany the state budget. This would make permanent changes to Bright Futures – including making the scholarship amount a flat rate in the budget instead of tying it tuition hikes – and would increase eligibility requirements over the next four years. This same bill also contains language that establishes the doctor of pharmacy program for the University of South Florida at the polytechnic campus in Lakeland. (It would not be all that surprising if Crist vetoes this bill.)
3. Anti-abortion counseling-$2 million. Legislators expect Crist to veto HB 1143, the health care bill that includes the requirement that women get an ultrasound if they are seeking an abortion during the first trimester. They have purposely held the bill back so there is time to mount a campaign to convince Crist to support it. What’s lost in the dust-up is that more than a year ago Crist intervened and saved the state’s crisis counseling program from getting cut. This program – which was started while Jeb Bush was in office – provides money for pregnancy support centers and advertising for billboards that direct people to a hotline. Lawmakers this year spared it from any cuts. There was a provision added that states 85 percent of the money will be used for “direct client services, website maintenance and Option line.”
4. Insurance Commissioner Kevin McCarty’s summer homework. McCarty has been a constant target of some lawmakers the last few years especially after he urged Crist to veto last year’s property deregulation bill. This year the Office of Insurance Regulation did lose 10 positions in the new budget, but its funding level was close to last year’s spending. Lawmakers, however, have demanded that McCarty produce by Sept. 1 a detailed report of all residential property insurance rate filings submitted during the last fiscal year. The report has to include lots of information including the name of the OIR actuary who reviewed the rate filing and the days it took for regulators to act on the filing request. This move comes in the wake of grumbling that McCarty’s office opposed some of the insurance proposals floating around this past session even though his office was approving rate hikes.
5. Motorcycle safety awareness-$250,000. This is a reduction in funding from last year, but the budget this year directly orders the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to provide this money to just one group: American Bikers Aiming Toward Education of Florida Inc. This is a group that lobbies on behalf of bikers and led the charge to repeal the requirement that bikers 21 or older must wear a helmet. The president of the organization says his group should get the money because it has a motorcycle safety awareness program in place that has helped reduce motorcycle deaths in Florida.
6. Banning assault rifles. The Sun-Sentinel first reported that there was a push to block Chief Financial Officer Alex Sink from using any money to purchase assault rifles for her fraud investigators. This led to a mocking ad from the Republican Party of Florida that prompted Sink to accuse the party of making fun of law-enforcement officers. Just to bring it full circle the final version of the budget included the provision that Sink’s office cannot purchase “assault-type weapons.”
7. Cancel this lease, we mean it. Last year the Legislature wanted to get a better handle of how much land the state owned and how much office space it leased. Lawmakers weren’t totally satisfied with the response they got from the state’s main landlord – the Department of Management Services. This year’s budget goes out of its way to specify how, when and where certain state offices are to be closed due to budget cuts. The budget orders the closing of 10 driver license offices around the state stretching from Fort Walton Beach to Vero Beach. But there’s also language that lists the address and locations of other state offices in Key West, Chipley and Tallahassee that are to have their leases ended. Lawmakers also ordered the cancellation of a lease payment for a copier in a Key West office and for postage meters in several locations.
8. Unlicensed activity media campaign – $600,000. This has been in the budget for years, but it gets scant discussion. The state sets aside money to “publicize the dangers” of unlicensed real estate activity and unlicensed accountants. The money to battle unlicensed real estate activity can be used to pay for media production and advertising materials from a non-profit corporation that represents the largest number of licensed real estate professionals. The money to educate the public about unlicensed accountants will be spent in consultation with a company that represents the largest number of licensed CPAs.
9. Florida International University/Department of Health-$32.5 million. This has already gotten some publicity as a project associated with Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami and the powerful budget chief. But what’s interesting is that the state plans to borrow money to construct and manage the building.
10. Free orange juice – $240,000. Of course what would a Florida welcome station be like if there wasn’t free orange juice available to visitors. The Department of Citrus is authorized to spend this much for “citrus juice” to be handed out at the state’s four welcome stations located in Escambia, Hamilton, Nassau and Jackson counties in North Florida.
Gary Fineout is the managing editor of Florida Tribune, where this piece originally appeared. Reach him at [email protected]. Reprinted with permission.