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Amendment 8 would benefit community colleges

St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler doubts Florida voters would agree to raise their taxes to support community colleges any time soon.

But that's not stopping him from supporting Amendment 8, which would give each of the state's 67 counties the authority to levy a local-option sales tax to supplement state funding for the community college in its area.

The amendment requires approval from 60 percent of Florida voters to pass. If it clears that hurdle, community colleges would have to hold referendums in each county they serve, asking voters if they would support a tax increase.

"It's a two-step process," Kuttler said of the only education-related amendment left on the Nov. 4 ballot. "First, you give the colleges the hunting license. Then you go to the voters for the actual tax increase."

Those two steps could be years apart. But as the election draws closer, Amendment 8 proponents worry that the distinction may be lost on voters.

A poll conducted in early October by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research showed that 37 percent of respondents favored Amendment 8. Forty percent were against it, and 23 percent were undecided. Kuttler and others, including the head of the professional association for Florida's 28 public community colleges, suspect potential voters assume a vote for Amendment 8 is a vote for a tax increase.

"This is definitely going to be a confusing issue for the voters," said Michael Comins, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of Community Colleges. "The fact that there is language in there about a local tax, I think, is going to automatically draw some opposition."

But Comins and other community college advocates say the schools, which are the entry point for more than half of Florida's high school graduates seeking postsecondary education, desperately need a funding boost.

Unlike K-12 school districts and state universities, Florida's community colleges receive lump-sum funding from the Legislature rather than a certain amount per student. While the state's poor economy has led it to cut funding to community colleges in recent years — more than $116-million this year alone — enrollment has soared.

"We grew about 50,000 students last year and it looks like we're on track to grow by another 50,000," said Willis N. Holcombe, chancellor of Florida's community college system. "If our colleges don't have the resources to add more classes, they aren't going to be able to serve those students."

That worries groups like Associated Industries of Florida, one of the state's most influential business consortiums.

"Students aren't coming to us with the right skills," said Associated Industries president Barney Bishop, who testified before the Florida Budget and Reform Commission in support of Amendment 8. "They can't read, they can't write, they can't think critically. For us, it's all about whether we're going to have a work force that can compete with China, with India, with South Korea."

Yet while few would argue that community colleges need appropriate funding, some fear Amendment 8 could lead to educational disparities between schools that are able to persuade voters to approve a tax and those that are not.

The concern is especially great for the 19 colleges that, unlike St. Petersburg College and Hills­borough Community College, serve more than one county. North Florida Community College, for example, would need approval from voters in six counties, some of which are the state's poorest.

As a result, officials in more populous counties like Miami-Dade tend to favor the amendment. A 1 percent local option sales tax in that county could raise $426-million, compared with $316,000 in tiny Liberty County, according to Florida TaxWatch.

Members of the Taxation and Budget Reform Commission discussed the equity issue but were more concerned the Legislature could further reduce funding to schools that are able to convince local constituencies to support them.

Mused former state senator and commission member Les Miller: "If this passes, and a community college down the road gets the funds, would the Legislature say, "Okay, this particular school is getting these dollars — let's back some of that money out and put it somewhere else'?"

Others, including limited-government devotees at the James Madison Institute, wonder if taxpayers served by community colleges that attract students from around the state would balk at subsidizing nonlocal students from counties where the community college sales tax is not being collected.

"That's information that the taxpayer will have to take into consideration," said Kurt Wenner, director of tax research for Florida TaxWatch, which supports the amendment. "But just having a community college in the area is a plus for the citizens of those localities."

The board that oversees Florida's university system, which is struggling to meet its own budget shortfall, has not taken a position on Amendment 8. The state Board of Education has not taken a stand either, although it plans to discuss the amendment at a meeting today in Tampa.

Meanwhile, the Florida Education Association, which fought to keep three constitutional amendments involving tax reform and school vouchers off the November ballot, is supporting Amendment 8 despite calling it "a stopgap measure."

"Ultimately, it could end up pitting one group against another," said the teachers union president, Andy Ford. "But in the absence of a Legislature that cares about education, we have to live for today."

>>Fast facts

By the numbers

28 Florida community colleges

850,000-plus students

23,203 faculty members

$936-million in general revenue

$509-million in student fees

$128-million in lottery funding

Source: Florida Department of Education

How Amendment 8 will appear on the ballot

Local Option Community College Funding

Proposing an amendment to the State Constitution to require that the Legislature authorize counties to levy a local option sales tax to supplement community college funding; requiring voter approval to levy the tax; providing that approved taxes will sunset after 5 years and may be reauthorized by the voters.

Amendment 8 would benefit community colleges 10/22/08 [Last modified: Sunday, October 26, 2008 12:48pm]

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