Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Education

DeWitt: Education funding gives Ingoglia a chance to prove he's not a politician

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It's been one of the major head-scratchers of the run-up to this year's session of the Florida Legislature:

Doom-and-gloom budget forecasts, especially from the House of Representatives, at a time when Florida's economy seems to be humming along.

What gives?

How did we go from a budget surplus of $636 million this year to the forecast of $7.5 million for 2017-18 and, far more concerning, big deficits in the two years after that?

Well, that sort of thing tends to happen when lawmakers trying to look like anti-tax crusaders turn their backs on $450 million in school revenue.

That's the amount the state would have raised this year had the Legislature merely kept the local education property tax rate the same rather than reducing it to the revenue-neutral "rollback" rate.

Even more alarming, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — speaker of the House and possible candidate for governor — is determined to do it again this session.

The thing is, what he's fighting against is not really a tax increase, though, true enough, it is defined that way under state law.

In fact, this source of money seems to fit perfectly with the most cherished Republican tax philosophy: Keep the tax rate low and the unburdened economy will respond with the increased revenues that come with robust growth.

Also appealing to free-market advocates: The burden of this tax is naturally self-correcting, climbing when times are good and dropping when property values in Florida take their periodic, inevitable nosedive.

The Legislature has been willing to see it this way for years. Until last year, lawmakers stuck with the tradition of leaving the education tax rate level. Senators, including our own Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, seem inclined to do the same during this year's session. And Gov. Rick Scott has already committed to that path in the proposed budget he released last week.

There are, it almost goes without saying, lots of problems with Scott's plan, including that it essentially diverts those increased local property tax revenues to big handouts to business — an idea that Corcoran, to his credit, steadfastly opposes.

But Scott's budget does recognize what is already proving to be the case — that the revenue picture is somewhat brighter than initial forecasts suggested — and, more importantly, that Florida's schools need money.

The Hernando County School District is just starting to emerge from a long trek through the financial wilderness, recently passing its first cut-free budget since 2008 and still limping along with inadequate reserves and scanty arts and music programs.

State Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill — who did not respond to my emailed questions about this issue — has been able to cast himself as a savior in this regard, helping the district secure more than $2 million in "sparsity funding" for small districts, and $500,000 to start a program for mentally ill elementary and middle school students.

But the district recently pulled a request for money to continue that program after hearing discouraging budget news from Ingoglia's office — possibly abandoning kids with desperate, unmet needs — which shows exactly why this approach is no substitute for a long-term plan.

In fact it's just the kind of splashy temporary fix that has helped make the label "politician" the ultimate political slur, as Ingoglia himself showed last year when he sent out a campaign flier proclaiming "BLAISE IS NOT A POLITICIAN."

This is a clearly ridiculous statement from someone who probably started counting votes on the playground, and who was re-elected recently not only to the House but as chairman of his state party.

He's a politician through and through and, as becomes more obvious all the time, a highly skilled and powerful one. In fact, he's becoming one of the few House members who might actually be able to influence policy in Tallahassee.

He wants to say he's not the kind of politician who gives his calling a bad name?

He needs to prove it.

Contact Dan DeWitt at [email protected]; follow @ddewitttimes.

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