TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers are relying on $2 billion in federal stimulus money to shore up their education budgets, but the state has not even sent its application.
The federal government is waiting. And so are some lawmakers.
On Wednesday, Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith said that the state has "strategically waited" to get all the right information, although the application "is ready to go, it's complete."
But Smith said he's waiting for "guidance" concerning a waiver application for the federal money. Florida needs the waiver because the state hasn't maintained education spending at 2005-06 levels, as required by the federal stimulus program.
Smith's strategy is coming under fire as the legislative session winds down May 1. That's the same day Smith now expects to get the waiver guidance, which he says his office has been waiting on for weeks.
Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Sarasota, was surprised that the state has not yet filed the application.
"If we don't get the waiver, that is the nuclear option," Detert said. "Then we're not only coming back, but we're slicing and dicing (the budget). So I just wish they would do it as quickly as possible and then get guidance if they did the paperwork wrong."
The state and federal education departments stopped short of mutual finger-pointing, with Smith saying the feds keep postponing release of the waiver information and the U.S. Department of Education saying Florida shouldn't be waiting on anything.
"They have absolutely everything they need to complete the application," said Sandra Abrevaya, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. She added later that "the information (about the waiver) that is forthcoming is not necessary" in completing the application.
But Smith said there's "no race to get this application in; it's just really important to get it right."
"It's a matter of timing," Smith said. "The worst thing to have would be the expectation we'd receive funding through the application process and then find there's a problem with the waiver."
Smith said the decision on submitting the application ultimately rests with Gov. Charlie Crist. Asked about the application, Crist told reporters the decision rests with Smith.
California, Illinois and South Dakota have all received federal funding after completing the application process. None required a waiver. Federal officials have said it can take two weeks for processing, but Abrevaya said they are working faster than that right now. Applications for Maine, Utah, Mississippi, Minnesota and Oregon are pending.
U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, has implored state officials to file an application as soon as possible. On Monday, he met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and says Duncan and his aides have not seen anything from Florida in writing.
"There was a level of frustration," Meek said. "The application should have been in yesterday — that's the attitude they had."
State lawmakers have been working on their budgets all along with the expectation that the stimulus money is a solid gamble, and realizing they might just end the session without knowing for sure.
"We're betting on whether or not it's going to get here and we're going to be in deep trouble if it doesn't come," said Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, chair of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee.
Said House PreK-12 Appropriations Chair Anitere Flores, R-Miami: "I don't know if there's somebody that's withholding information, on our side, on their side. I don't know what's going on."
Commissioner Smith says his office is in constant contact with the federal government, the governor's office and others and they are reasonably assured that Florida will get the money.
Whenever the state applies.
"It's like buying a car," Smith said. "You want to make sure that all aspects of your agreement are understood before you get into it."
Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory contributed to this report.