Education, business development top list of budget priorities facing state legislators

Published Friday, January 6, 2012 7:00 am
by Jonathan Mattise

Amid another budget shortfall in the billions, Florida lawmakers will make spending decisions over the next two months that could boost Treasure Coast schools, further cut care for local low-income patients and affect a slew of other residents because of Florida's bleak budget picture.

Gov. Rick Scott held firm to a "no-new-taxes" mantra in his proposed $66.4 billion 2012-13 budget, but pulled an about-face on education when he called for more school dollars after pushing big cuts last year. During the 2012 legislative session starting Tuesday, any increase in kindergarten-through-12th-grade dollars would likely come at the expense of Medicaid patients most in need of help, and other health programs, to make up for a $2 billion shortfall.

Adding to the political fervor of a fired-up 2012 election cycle, state lawmakers also are tasked with crafting gerrymander-proof district maps, which will dictate who can run to represent Treasure Coast voters in the Legislature and Congress for the next 10 years. Each legislative and congressional member would then have to try to reclaim their newly drawn seats in November elections.

Here's a look at the major budget issues facing the Legislature this session, which runs from January through March.

K-12 EDUCATION

Up to three months ago, K-12 schools looked like they’d suffer another round of state cuts in 2012-13, Treasure Coast schools lobbyist Vernon Pickup-Crawford said.

If Scott sticks to his word, he'll block any spending plan that doesn't give schools a big bump. He's advocating an extra $1 billion for K-12 schools, including $381 million in additional per-student dollars. The rest of the $1 billion refills one-time dollars doled out this year, accounts for 30,567 new statewide students and replaces tax losses from declining property values.

For Martin County schools, the request would increase this year's $6,644 state per-student dollars to $6,809. Indian River County would receive $6,456, an increase of $160 from the current school year. And St. Lucie County schools would get about $6,331 per student, an extra $144 per pupil for the upcoming school year, according to a governor's office analysis.

"The (K-12) investment should be guarded with accountability but without political support children's issues wither and die," St. Lucie schools Superintendent Michael Lannon said. " ... I'm really thrilled that Gov. Scott has put children first in his budget priorities."

Scott's budget would funnel $9.5 billion into schools — the third highest amount in Florida's history, but still lagging $525 per pupil behind the last federal stimulus-fueled school year in 2010-11. However, state Public Education Capital Outlay dollars, used for facility improvements, would run dry for public schools again in 2012.

HEALTH CARE

State cuts to health services and the $21.6 billion bulging Medicaid program likely will offset any jump in schools funding, and hospital rates for helping the state's most vulnerable populations could be the target.

A year after losing 12 percent of their Medicaid reimbursements — a three-county projected loss of $8.4 million, according to the Florida Hospital Association — most Treasure Coast hospitals could lose another 40 to 60 percent of their Medicaid dollars under Scott's plan. The governor wants to save almost $2 billion by flattening out statewide hospital Medicaid rates, but hospitals contend the losses would manifest in fewer available services for patients or the costs would shift to out-of-pocket insurance payers.

"As it is, Medicaid currently only reimburses approximately 40 percent of the cost of care provided," Martin Health System spokesman Scott Samples said. "Cutting reimbursement further could simply shift the cost of providing that care to other residents of the community."

Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said his Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee will consider Scott's idea. Negron also plans to go after any state-funded health awareness and outreach programs again. That means anything in the health budget not "feeding, clothing, housing or providing medical care."

"I think we should just completely eliminate our soft services in the budget, advice and guidance programs," Negron said. "Programs that essentially hector and lecture Floridans on how they should live their lives, and tell them things they probably already know or should know."

Negron also wants to take away dollars from adult mental health and substance abuse institutions. He espoused the same idea last session, but both groups made it through the budget unscathed. Cuts to those type of facilities, like New Horizons of the Treasure Coast, would not be as dramatic as the huge chop he proposed last year, Negron said.

Several groups should be safe, in Negron's view — nursing homes, which sustained 6.5 percent Medicaid rate cuts last year; facilities like ARC of Martin County that receive Agency for Persons with Disabilities funding; mental health crisis stabilization units; and children's drug treatment and mental health programs.

BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT

Scott and the private-sector-friendly Republican Legislature continue to push for lower corporate taxes and money to bring companies to Florida.

Scott wants to increase the corporate tax exemption from $25,000 to $50,000, which means another 27 percent of Florida businesses would be completely exempt. He also proposed a tangible personal property tax exemption up to $50,000, and increased sales tax exemptions for expanding manufacturing businesses, by requiring only a 5 percent increase in production instead of 10 percent to benefit.

"I think that all of those are going in the right direction," said Michael Corbit, Workforce Solutions business projects coordinator. "Any time we can provide dollars to grow businesses and help them hire and train more employees is a positive step."

Scott also asked legislators to provide $225 million, almost double the amount the Department of Economic Opportunity currently receives, to recruit businesses. But the state's iffy track record of handing out money to companies has raised concerns.

Since 1995, the state has handed out $1.7 billion in incentives, and many of the 1,600 or so jobs didn't materialize. On the Treasure Coast, DEO numbers said only six of 21 companies promised $147.5 million in state incentives received any breaks. But DEO's numbers also contain potential tracking errors. For instance, DEO said Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute hasn't received any money yet. But the research institute's officials said they already have $55 million from the state, most of which was put toward their $47 million soon-to-be-complete headquarters.

"Given the track record of some of our economic development investments, I'm looking closely at making sure this is a good investment for the state," Negron said. "Some economic development has not delivered in the way that was promised."

ENVIRONMENT

Everglades restoration and the state's top land-buying program would get a boost if the governor's recommendations hold true — another turnaround from Scott's rookie-year budget offering.

Everglades-related initiatives would receive $40 million in Scott's proposal, an $11 million increase. That's in stark contrast to the $17 million the governor proposed last year.

The state could use the money as matching funds for federal-state partnership initiatives, like the $400 million C-44 Reservoir and Stormwater Treatment Area in Indiantown. That project is part of a larger $2.13 billion Indian River Lagoon-South undertaking aimed to improve the quality of water flowing into the Everglades, said Mark Perry, Florida Oceanographic Society executive director.

And Florida Forever, the state's land-buying conservation program, would be up and running again with $15 million. The program went unfunded last year, following suit with Scott's 2011-12 recommendations.

"I think it shows at least that (Scott) has gotten the word that restoring the valuable ecosystem of Florida is very important to everybody here," Perry said. "He finally got that message, I believe."

Beyond the Budget and Redistricting

The Legislature already faces a to-do list packed with budget writing and redistricting this year but several other policy proposals are getting lawmakers' attention in the 2012 session. Here's a look at some of those topics.

Gambling and casinos: Expansion of gambling in Florida is on the table again and already the proposal is teeming with stakeholders either wanting a piece of the action, or trying to kill the bill. The ever-changing gaming bill would (at least, so far): create a state gaming commission; allow for three destination casino resorts in Miami-Dade or Broward counties with a minimum $2 billion investment each; close down Internet cafes; set tax rates at 10 percent for both new destination casinos and existing gaming facilities; and, with voter approval, either allow pari-mutuels such as Fort Pierce Jai Alai & Poker to add slots or become full-fledged casinos if they are willing to invest $100 million over three years. All of those provisions have been subject to change almost daily so far.

Senate PresidentMike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, has said he wants the issue to get a full floor debate. But House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, has said the measure faces an uphill battle in his chamber.

Personal Injury Protection insurance reform: Officials say PIP auto insurance is costing Florida an extra $1 billion because of rampant fraud, expenses from frivolous lawsuits and potentially fraudulent medical payments. That has caused Miami and Tampa area PIP rates to skyrocket 80 percent in the last three years. A top priority of Gov. Rick Scott and state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, PIP reform is a topic Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, plans to tackle. He said he would introduce a reform bill to tighten up rules about who can operate PIP clinics, increase investigative efforts and better define what PIP benefits are covered.

Workforce agency boards: The governor and a few legislators want to tighten the reins on the state's regional, nonprofit workforce agencies this session. Scott and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, are the two key players pushing measures in reaction to federal and state investigations about how the agencies awarded public money to businesses affiliated with their board members. Investigations into Orlando and Tampa agencies revealed the most widely known potentially questionable spending. But officials are even looking into Workforce Solutions locally, in addition to the state's other boards. A bill pushed by Scott would require board members and directors to file financial disclosures. Board chair and director appointments also would require the governor's approval, the number of members would be further limited and the boards would need to send annual budgets to the state for review.

Special taxing districts:Scott also wants to take a closer look at the 1,600-plus special districts across the state. Though Scott hasn't laid out a specific plan for the districts, he wants to delve into how these districts are spending public money and staying accountable to taxpayers. Local lawmakers including Negron andRep. William Snyder, R-Stuart, have supported putting districts' fates up to periodic voter referendums, or at least having periodic legislative reviews to see if district should continue. Including multi-county districts, Martin County has 15 special districts, St. Lucie has 53, and Indian River County has 17, and some are close to a century old.

ABOUT YOUR LAWMAKERS

Senate

Joe Negron, R-Stuart

Age: 50

Experience: Elected to Senate in August 2009; House of Representatives, 2000-2006

Committees: Chairman of Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services Appropriations; Vice Chairman of Budget; Chairman of Select Committee on Protecting Florida's Children; Banking and Insurance; Communications, Energy, and Public Utilities; Higher Education; Reapportionment; Rules; Joint Legislative Budget Commission

Occupation: Lawyer

District 28: Indian River County's shoreline and parts of Martin, St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties

Contact information:

Tallahassee office

306 Senate Office Building

404 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100

850-487-5088

Email: negron.joe.web@flsenate.gov

District office

3500 S.W. Corporate Parkway, Suite 204

Palm City, FL 34990

772-219-1665

Senate VOIP: 42800

Fax: 772-219-1666

Toll Free: 888-759-0791

Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island

Age: 41

Senate president

District 26: Part of Osceola and Brevard counties, most of Indian River County and a small portion of St. Lucie County

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

409 The Capitol

404 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1100

850-487-5056

Twitter: MikeHaridopolos

Email: haridopolos.mike.web@flsenate.gov

District office

3270 Suntree Blvd., Suite 122

Melbourne, FL 32940

321-752-3131

Fax: 321-752-3133

J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales

District 17: Part of western St. Lucie County; Hardee and Highlands counties; parts of DeSoto, Polk, Glades and Okeechobee counties

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

412 Senate Office Building

404 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399

850-487-5044

Fax: 850-487-5640

Email: Alexander.jd.web@flsenate.gov

District office

201 Central Ave. West

City Hall Complex, Room 115

Lake Wales, FL 33853

863-679-4847

Fax: 863-679-4851

Sebring office

2925 Kenilworth Blvd.

Sebring, FL 33870

863-386-6016

House of Representatives

William Snyder, R-Stuart

District 82: Parts of Martin, St. Lucie and Palm Beach counties

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

412 House Office Building

402 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

850-488-8832

Email: william.snyder@myfloridahouse.gov

District office

2400 S. Federal Highway

Suite 250, Stuart, FL 34994

772-221-4904

Fax: 772-221-4906

Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart

District 81: Parts of western and northeastern Martin County, including the northern shoreline; parts of St. Lucie CountyContact info:

Tallahassee office

417 House Office Building

402 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

850-488-8749

Email: gayle.harrell@myfloridahouse.gov

District office

2212 S.E. Veterans Memorial Parkway

Port St. Lucie, FL 34952-4873

772-335-7880

Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach

District 80: Parts of Indian River, St. Lucie and Brevard counties

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

317 House Office Building

402 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

850-488-0952

District office

1053 20th Place

Vero Beach, FL 32960-5359

772-778-5077

Twitter: debbie_mayfield

Email: debbie.mayfield@myfloridahouse.gov

Steve Perman, D-Boca Raton

District 78: Western Martin County; parts of St. Lucie, Okeechobee and Palm Beach counties

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

1401 The Capitol

402 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

850-488-5588

Email: steve.perman@myfloridahouse.gov

Local office

100 N. U.S. 1

Fort Pierce, FL 34954

772-595-1391

Tom Goodson, R-Cocoa

District 29: Western and central Indian River County; parts of Brevard County

Contact info:

Tallahassee office

1101 The Capitol

402 S. Monroe St.

Tallahassee, FL 32399-1300

850-488-3006

Email: tom.goodson@myfloridahouse.gov

Local office

1225 Main St.

Sebastian, FL 32958-4165

772-770-6708

Fax: 772-770-6709