Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July
State senators peppered education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz with questions on and off for an hour Wednesday afternoon about the Niceville Republican's plan to change how after-school and mentoring programs are funded, as the chamber started deliberating its budget plan for 2016-17.
Gaetz's proposal involves pooling together existing program funding from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice (which currently go to about a half-dozen or so designated organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys & Girls Clubs), adding more dollars to that pot and creating a $30 million competitive grant program.
Gaetz says it would make a more fair process, free of lobbying and politics, and open up the dollars to more non-profit organizations that provide aftercare services to Florida children. (More here.)
Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and several Democratic senators scrutinized the details of Gaetz's proposal during discussion on the Senate floor -- voicing skepticism through their questions that the plan could be implemented for the next budget year, which starts July 1, without affecting a funding stream that programs rely on.
They suggested a couple months wasn't enough time to set up the new state-appointed board that would vet program providers and decide which got how much money.
"I think President Gaetz is on to something that’s a good thing, because it becomes more of a fairness issue and a ranking issue, but it’s in the implementation that we have to look at this a little more closely," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said.
Gaetz countered every criticizing question with a defense.
New programs always need start-up time, and Gaetz said, if this is enacted in the budget, there's no reason the new board wouldn't be able to begin its work by mid-April.
"We would give this open grant process as much time as we're given in the Legislature to make similar decisions," Gaetz said, referring to the legislative session. "If we can do it in nine weeks, I would think people who have nothing else to do except this -- within their responsibilities on that committee -- would be able to do as well as 160 legislators who have over 1,500 bills to consider."
"Going forward, next year, they could take all year if they want to, but you have to start somewhere," he added.
Gaetz also rejected that after-school and mentoring program providers would see a lapse in funding while the competitive grant program was set up. It's a fear that many providers expressed to the Herald/Times, citing the uncertainty Gaetz's proposal would create in their budget outlooks.
Responding to senators' questions today, Gaetz said he consulted with the office of Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater about how aftercare programs receive funding now. Some, such as Boys and Girls Clubs, receive dollars as reimbursements to eligible expenses, and that wouldn't change, Gaetz said.
"There would be no remarkable difference in cash-flow," he said, adding that for those organizations that operate "hand to mouth" and continually rely on those reimbursement checks: "We have no reason to believe there would be any exacerbation of that problem going forward."
But some senators weren't convinced by Gaetz's answers.
"There seems, to me, to be a lot that has to be done in order to make this program work," Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said. "We need to slow it down to make sure we get it right the first time, if in fact we do it at all."
During a similar (and simultaneous) floor discussion in the House, education budget Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, reiterated comments he made to the Herald/Times last week: He's open to Gaetz's idea, but not this session.
"I do certainly see some merit, in the future, having these great programs get out of the process of politics … and just be able to go and demonstrate its merits," Fresen said, but "don't change (it) overnight."
Without buy-in from the House, Gaetz's proposal is unlikely to be enacted this year.