A weekend interview with ...
... state Rep. Will Weatherford. Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, is considered a contender to be House speaker in 2012. This session he will serve on several education-related committees, including as chairman of the State and Community Colleges and Workforce Appropriations Committee. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the upcoming session, education funding and priorities for the next two years.
You're going to be on all these education committees and councils. What do you see as the key issues coming up during session?
Well, I think clearly funding is the biggest issue. You know right now, particularly when you talk about higher education, just access, being able to not only get into school but be able to have the funding to get in. When the economy slows down like it has, particularly there's problems in the work force, people want to go back to school and get a degree. We have to make sure we have those avenues available for people to go back and get the education they need, so when the economy comes back around they're more qualified and prepared for those higher quality jobs.
What do you see as the role of the state college system that is coming into play, and how is it going to be affected if at all by the economy?
I think it's an economic development issue. When you look at our community college system, they play a vital role in our work force. Just the mass numbers they deal with. ... What we've created is the pilot program for the state system. So what you'll see this year is looking at the state college system and making sure if they can offer some four-year degrees that maybe universities aren't focusing on but are badly needed in the work force, then we want them to be able to do that. We want to give them the authority to do that and the ability to get those degrees. So that's a big focus of ours.
How does the money play into that?
It's at a premium. It's too early for me to say how we're going to fund it or what manner. A lot of it has to do with the allocation that the speaker gives out. You know the speaker gives allocations to a committee and then we use those funds to fund a certain area. So we'll have to wait and see what those are. Until we see what the last revenue estimating conference tells us, the history has shown us the revenues continue to go down. I hope that doesn't continue going into the next quarter, but it probably will. So we just kind of have to wait and see what the environment is, how short we are and what the possibilities are. It's too early to know what that really means.
When you talk about the budget right now, just overall, what should we be looking for in education?
I think our hope is not to reduce our spending on education. I don't know if that's possible. I'll never say we guarantee we won't look at education. But my hope is that we don't cut education at all. I think everybody would agree that education in the state of Florida is underfunded and we want to give them more money, not take money away. But we also have to understand and recognize we're facing the worst economy this state has seen in decades. And so we have to be realistic but also hopeful we protect the state's greatest resource, which is our children.
How is that going to be possible? All the schools already are bracing for multimillion-dollar cuts.
Well, we're going to find out. Look, these are unprecedented times. This state has never seen the challenges that we're faced with right now from an economic standpoint. You talk with people who have been around the recessions in 1991, 1974, and they pale in comparison with what we're faced with. So it's hard to say I've got the answers the day I'm named the chairman of a committee. That's why we have session. That's why we have committees, to look at all these issues to find the answers. Are there answers? One thing we do know is we face a very tough year. It is going to be tough and everybody has got to wrap their arms around each other and work together to get through it. Because the sun is going to come out again in the state of Florida. Days will get better in the future. But for the next 18 months, it's going to be extremely tough.
New taxes. Are they possible? Probable?
I hope we don't do new taxes. I don't think now is the time to put more taxes on the backs of people who are having a hard time paying their mortgage. Pasco County, for example, 60 percent of the people who have bought a home in the past five years have either gone through the process of foreclosure or are going through the process of foreclosure right now. So we have to be very, very careful. I would never say new revenues won't be generated, because they could be. But my hope is that we reduce other areas of government where there's redundancy or overspending first, before we look at other areas of generating revenue.
What about your priorities? What are they?
My priority for the next two years is anything that creates jobs in the state of Florida. We want shovels turning dirt. We want people working. We want teachers in the classroom. We want students getting the quality education they need. Anything will bring our economy forward and create jobs and get this economy moving forward, that is what I am pushing for.
Will that include an increased focus on the career academies?
Yeah. Absolutely. That's a long term. There's short-term economic development, like building roads. We know building roads creates jobs today. But there's also long-term economic development stimulus, in making sure that our work force, our kids, have the skills that they need to go out and compete. So I think that having career academies is a vital part of that. And also having a higher ed system, whether it's the community college level or the university system.
What about the issue that school district people keep raising, 'If we're going to have less money, at least let us have more flexibility in how we use that money'?
I am in favor of that. Absolutely. I'll tell you another thing. My hope is to challenge not just our school district but all school districts to come up with ideas of things that we can do to, what I would call taking the chains off, so to speak. If there's things in statute that are overburdening or don't make sense or have outlived their meaning, let's take a look at those, as long as they don't cost the state money. If they cost us money, they're hard to do. But there's things in statute I know that are out there that they're saying don't make sense and end up costing them more money. If we can help make their jobs more efficient, then maybe that's a way we can benefit them, since we don't have any more money.